Within the party, rank-and-file Democrats seem to be taking the issue more seriously. Eighty percent of likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers say that primary candidates should talk “a lot” about climate change—a result that suggests climate change is one of the Democratic Party’s top two issues, according to a CNN/Des Moines Register poll conducted by Selzer and Company this month. Only health care merited such consensus concern among the group.
That points to a potential upheaval in how important voters consider climate policy. In May 2015, when the same polling firm last posed a similar question to likely Democratic caucus-goers, climate change did not rank among the top five most important issues.
And several recent polls have also identified a huge, nearly 10-point surge in worry about climate change among all Americans. “We’ve not seen anything like that in the 10 years we’ve been conducting the study,” Anthony Leiserowitz, a researcher at Yale, told me in January.
Those national surveys found that Americans were motivated by a series of urgent new reports about climate science and an outbreak of extreme weather.
Read: How to understand the UN’s dire new climate report
Some Republicans say they’re taking notice. “I think we’re moving from the science of climate to the solutions of addressing climate, and that is a big shift in particular for Republicans,” says Heather Reams, the executive director of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a nonprofit that encourages GOP politicians to support renewable energy.
This shift, if it is occurring, has yet to result in concrete policy proposals. Nor is it shared across the party. Some Senate Republicans have embraced “innovation” as a possible solution to climate change, but the Trump administration last week proposed zeroing out the budget for two major Department of Energy innovation programs. The programs will survive, however, in part because they have the support of Lamar Alexander, a powerful Republican from Tennessee who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.
In the House, Republicans are far more skeptical of climate action. Representative Rob Bishop, a conservative lawmaker from Utah, has said the Green New Deal is nearly “tantamount to genocide.” The House GOP has offered very few climate policies of its own. An exception: Two Republicans—Representative Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Representative Francis Rooney of Florida—last year co-sponsored a bipartisan bill to tax carbon emissions without increasing the federal budget.
It’s still unclear whether the spike in public concern will translate to any lasting GOP shift. The Green New Deal, in all its ambition and haziness, has reframed the climate conversation around solutions, where Democrats have more to say right now; if moderate Democrats fell back to insisting on the acceptance of climate science alone, Republicans might be happy to meet them there.