The Republican Party has a wolf by the ears when it comes to climate change, at least according to a pro-clean energy Republican who lost re-election largely thanks to his positions on the environment.
Former Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, who lost to fellow Republican Trey Gowdy in a 2010 primary, said Thursday that Republicans tend to lose primaries if they support policies cutting greenhouse gases. But there’s a problem: They can’t win over the national population if they make scientifically tenuous arguments denying humans’ role in climate change.
“They’re trying to figure out how to shimmy back to the trunk of the tree of science,” Inglis said. “They’re way out on a limb.”
Morning Consult polling has shown that Republicans are in a tough position on the environment because there is widespread support among registered voters for policies focusing on protecting the environment. What’s more, the most pro-environment voters are the ones that Democrats have dominated in recent elections: women, millennials, and Hispanics.
When given a choice between the environment or energy production, half of all registered voters agree that “the country should focus on protecting the environment, even if it leads to less energy production and higher energy prices.” Far fewer respondents (28 percent) choose the opposite approach, that the country should prioritize energy production over the environment.
While Democrats overwhelmingly side with protecting the environment (63 percent), Republicans are almost evenly divided. Only 42 percent of Republicans choose energy production over the environment, while 37 percent prioritize the environment. Among independents, almost half of respondents favor the environment (49 percent) over energy (26 percent).
Women support preserving the environment over producing energy by a 28-point margin (51 percent vs. 23 percent), compared to a 15-point margin (49 percent vs. 34 percent) among men.
Respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 favor the environment by a 34-point margin (57 percent vs. 23 percent). The margin in favor of the environment is 32 points (55 percent vs. 23 percent) among respondents age 30-44, 17 points (47 percent vs. 30 percent) among those age 45-64, and just 10 points (45 percent vs. 35 percent) among those 65 and older.
Among ethnic groups, Hispanic voters are the most supportive of the environment, favoring it over energy production by a 33-point margin (59 percent vs. 26 percent). African-American respondents favor the environment by a 30-point margin (52 percent vs. 22 percent), while white respondents side with the environment by a 21-point margin (50 percent vs. 29 percent).
Those numbers aren’t lost on some pro-environment Republicans who specifically hope to change the party’s stance on energy issues. Jay Faison, the North Carolina philanthropist who launched the conservative clean energy campaign group Clear Path, said earlier this month that it’s imperative for Republicans to embrace clean energy specifically to win over millennials and suburban women.
“Politically, we need to move from defense to offense on this issue,” Faison said in a news conference announcing a $1 million digital advertising campaign in 2016.
Inglis, for his part, has launched the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, which is similarly focused on crafting conservative messages around clean energy. He has now come to believe the only real solution is a carbon tax, he said in an Aspen Institute forum on Thursday.
“I think we can sell a revenue-neutral, border-adjustable carbon tax,” Inglis said, jokingly covering his mouth at the end of the sentence. “Pay no attention to those last words.” (Translation: “Carbon tax” is taboo among Republicans.)
Despite his moderate environmental views, Inglis had a relatively conservative record as a lawmaker. FreedomWorks gave him an 87 percent lifetime score. Even so, he said, his biggest “heresy” that allowed Gowdy to beat him 71 percent to 29 percent was his stance about climate change. He believes it is real and humans are responsible.
But heresies come and go. Inglis suggested that this year, there’s a long-shot chance it becomes easier for Republicans to take more environmentally friendly stances. His reasoning goes like this: If Donald Trump fractures the party as its presidential front-runner, Republicans may be more willing to speak their mind on climate change.
Senate races in Arizona, Ohio, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania could be opportunities for Republican incumbents to break with the majority of their party on climate change, he said.
“As we’ve watched some people push away from the nominee of my party, one of the best ways for them to push away actually is to say, ‘No, we think climate change is real, and we’ve got a solution,’” Inglis said.