Editorial: GOP Voters More Open to Climate Action

Tuesday, February 03, 2015
It’s not often that the results of public opinion polls catch us completely off guard. But we certainly were surprised — and pleasantly at that — to read Saturday that a new survey shows that an overwhelmingly majority of Americans, including half of Republicans, back government action to combat global warming. That breaks down into 91 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of independents and 51 percent of Republicans.

Not only that, the poll — conducted by The New York Times, Stanford University and the nonpartisan group Resources for the Future — also found that 48 percent of Republicans said they are more likely to vote for candidates who support fighting climate change; at the same time, 67 percent of respondents, including 72 percent of independents and 48 percent of Republicans, said they were less likely to vote for candidates who cling to the position that human-caused climate change is a hoax.

New Hampshire Republicans, who soon will begin to be courted in earnest by the party’s roster of 2016 presidential aspirants, should sit up and take notice of these results. Last time around, all the Republican candidates except Jon Huntsman were deep in climate-change denial or skepticism and opposed curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. And currently, the Times reports, many Republicans have been trying to avoid the issue by responding to questions about climate change with some variant of “Well, I’m not a scientist.”

Presumably sophisticated and attentive Purple State voters like those in New Hampshire will demand a fuller answer than that in the months leading up to the first-in-the-nation primary. We certainly hope so, because GOP presidential candidates will be under considerable pressure from the opposite direction from donors such as David and Charles Koch. The billionaire brothers fund advocacy groups pledged to defeat in primary elections Republican candidates who support action against climate change. It will be interesting to see how those who yearn to be president thread the needle between voters who increasingly think that the real hoax is continued denial and big donors whose economic interests demand it. The candidates will have to adopt considerably more nuanced positions than the hired help whom fat-cat donors have installed in Congress.

The new poll, which showed an increase of 9 percentage points from 2011 in the proportion of people who believe climate change is caused at least in part by human activity, suggests that the facts on the ground and in the atmosphere have eroded climate-change skepticism across the political spectrum, and that those who have been diligently sounding the alarm on this issue have been having some effect. Perhaps climate change is becoming a bit like gay marriage, where the political consensus, though changing, is still lagging behind broader public acceptance.

There’s more to be done on the educational and advocacy front, though. The poll results suggest that sharp differences of political opinion persist over whether climate change is important to people on a personal level: While 63 percent of Democrats said the issue was very or extremely important to them, only 40 percent of independents and 18 percent of Republicans said so. This is surprising when so many people assign such high priority to ensuring that their children will be secure and in a position to thrive in the future. The best argument for fighting climate change now is that it might be too late for the kids to do so when their time comes.