Conservative Voters' Climate Denial Could Ruin GOP Presidential Bid

The belief that climate change is not caused by human activity is so deeply held among conservative Republicans it might as well be added to the list that includes God, guns and the flag. This poses a tricky problem for GOP presidential candidates.


The trouble rests in two yawning gaps regarding attitudes on the climate issue: one between conservative Republicans and the rest of the Republican party, and another between conservative Republicans and the rest of American voters.

In order to secure the GOP nomination, candidates must have the support of the conservative Republican bloc, which comes out in droves for the primary elections. GOP primaries—in an awesome display of the party's dismal lack of diversity—are decided by older, white Americans who make up the most conservative bloc in the party. And they are staunchly in the climate denial camp.

A recent Gallup poll found that 40 percent of conservative Republicans believe that the effects of global warming will never happen. That stands in stark difference to other political identities. By contrast, only 16 percent of moderate/liberal Republicans, 14 percent of non-leaning independents, 5 percent of conservative/moderate Democrats and 3 percent of liberal Democrats say the same. In addition, conservative Republicans are the only group in which a clear majority (70 percent) believe global warming isn't manmade, but due to natural causes. By contrast, 47 percent of moderate/liberal Republicans agree that is the case.

A poll conducted by NBC News and Marist College in February found an overwhelming majority of Republican primary voters in early-nominating states (97 percent in Iowa and 96 percent in both South Carolina and New Hampshire) regard "a candidate who believes climate change is man-made and action should be taken to combat it" as either "mostly" or "totally" unacceptable.

All this means that GOP candidates are fearful of challenging the belief that climate change is not caused by human activity—and that the government should not take action to fight it. The eventual nominee is going to have to backpedal in the general election because the majority of Americans do believe climate change is caused by human actions, with more than 4 out of 10 Americans saying global warming poses an "imminent threat," and that the government should do something about it.

This is a conundrum all of the GOP presidential candidates must face going into the primaries, and for the eventual nominee, dampening his anti-climate rhetoric going into the general election.

A solid majority of Americans—two thirds overall, including almost half of Republicans—say they are more likely to vote for a candidate who promises to do something to fight climate change, according to a poll conducted by the New York Times, Stanford University and Resources for the Future. The poll also found that almost 8 out of 10 Americans believe the federal government should limit greenhouse gas emissions. And complicating things for Republican congressmembers Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, who are running for president, 64 percent of Americans have little or no trust in the things Republicans on the Hill say about global warming.

“What do they do? They scream, ‘You’re a denier.’ They brand you a heretic. Today, the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers,” Ted Cruz said in an interview in March. “It used to be [that] it is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat, and this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.”

'The government can’t change the weather," said Marco Rubio, an outspoken climate denier, in 2013. 'We can pass a bunch of laws that will destroy our economy, but it isn’t going to change the weather." Last month, he solidified his stance: "I believe the climate is changing because there has never been a moment when the climate is not changing,”

Perhaps Rand Paul really does beileve in man-caused climate change—or he has figured out the electoral calculus that he needs to win: He has started to suggest that he supports action to cut air pollution and believes that greenhouse gas emissions due to human activity are contributing to climate change.

In addition, if he wants to appeal to young Republicans, the eventual GOP candidate risks alienating the conservative primary voters during the general election: A 2014 poll conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News found that young Republicans age 18-49 believe that the federal government should limit the release of greenhouse gases, even if it means raising their monthly energy expenses by $20 a month.

It will be interesting to see how the GOP candidates shape their climate change positions to attract the conservative voting bloc going into the primaries—and how the eventual nominee will change his tune in a play for the center going into the general election against a Democratic nominee who will most surely be a strong advocate of climate change action. Tackling climate change is a top of the agenda item for Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee. And while Jeb Bush may be the putative GOP establishment candidate, there is no clear frontrunner in the Republican contest.

The winner of the GOP nomination will probably be a climate change denier, or at least, like Mr. Bush, a skeptic (though the former Florida governor recently acknowledged he's "concerned" about climate change). But can a climate denier win the White House?

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