The eventual Republican presidential nominee will likely need to address climate change at some point, but a new analysis suggests candidates are better off avoiding the topic altogether in primary contests and devising some way to address the issue without saying the words "climate change."
The first results of an ongoing effort between GOP pollster Adrian Gray and the Environmental Defense Action Fund, the advocacy arm of the Environmental Defense Fund, paint a complex picture for Republican presidential hopefuls who both want to establish conservative bona fides to attract primary voters, and keep their options open to appeal to independents in the general election.
Gray analyzed years of survey data and public opinion polls and held focus groups this year in Iowa and New Hampshire. The results shared with the Washington Examiner on Monday — which are also being given to GOP presidential campaigns and being released to the public — found that Republican voters intrinsically distrusted people who used the term climate change.
It also found that presenting more evidence that humans contribute to a warming planet swayed few or little people, and that GOP voters were unlikely to embrace policies advanced by Democrats.
"Climate change itself is a difficult word for a lot of people," Gray told the Examiner. "You start to talk about climate change and all of a sudden it becomes a separate, overly politicized issue and that's a challenge. ... We're just trying to find a place that, for lack of a better term, is a safe harbor to talk about these issues."
Gray said the most effective way for GOP candidates in 2016 to address climate is through developing a detailed, balanced energy platform rather than relying on shopworn phrases like "all of the above" energy, which he likened to a "kitchen sink" approach.
If Republicans can get detailed on, say, natural gas — potentially by positioning exports as an economic boon for the United States that has a potential to benefit emissions by displacing more carbon-dense coal — then candidates can present approaches that address climate change through other policy avenues important to conservatives.
"There's really no group that's going to favor Republicans on environmental policy more than they're going to favor them over energy policy, so it's a bit of a home turf starting point for Republicans," Gray said. "To just go out there and talk about, 'I have an purely environmental or climate policy,' their themes are not going to be as great."
The analysis comes as Republicans have begun casting about for positions on climate, as Democrats and environmental allies have hammered them on the issue in an attempt to draw a contrast between candidates. A handful of GOP senators said in January that humans "significantly" contribute to climate change, while more said that human activity plays some role. But out of the GOP presidential field, only Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has publicly said humans are largely the force behind a warming planet.
Gray knows something about toeing the line between primary and general elections. He worked under Republican operative Karl Rove on former President George W. Bush's two successful presidential campaigns, did some time in the Bush administration, and then later was director of strategy for the Republican National Committee. Gray said Republicans privately acknowledge the party needs to do something to tame greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say warm the planet.
But environmental issues are simply "lower on the totem pole" for conservative voters, Gray said. That's perhaps not great for policymaking, but Gray said it has some benefits for GOP candidates who might advocate policies for combating climate change, though he expects most to stay silent on it since candidates aren't likely to be pressured on the issue by primary voters.
"As long as the candidates are kind of with them on core philosophy on conservative principles, then they're kind of fine with a candidate taking a more aggressive or different approach on climate," said Gray, who is president of Adrian Gray Consulting. "I don't think you're going to see a lot of policies come out on climate before the primaries finish. I think they're kind of nervous."
It's not as important for Republican candidates in the general election to describe how much they think humans contribute to climate change as long as they acknowledge it's happening and that there are costs associated with not reining in emissions, Gray said. Most Republican voters aren't suspicious of science and are more likely to say science is "incomplete" or "uncertain" rather than "junk" or a "hoax," Gray said in his findings.
Candidates would do well discuss environmental issues with a local focus such as on clean air and clean water, which are less partisan, Gray said. He said GOP candidates also will likely find favor among Republican voters for rejecting one-size-fits-all regulatory approaches. Gray said last week's 5-4 Supreme Court ruling that sent an Environmental Protection Agency rule governing mercury emissions from power plants back to a lower court should inspire GOP candidates to say lawmakers, not bureaucrats, need to devise the mechanisms for reducing pollutants — but they'd need to develop those policies, too.
Part of the emphasis on nuance is owed to the increasing literacy of American voters regarding energy, Gray said. As the United States has grown to become the world's top oil and natural gas producer, more voters are aware of the different roles they serve — oil is largely used for transport, whereas natural gas is used for heating and electricity.
Republican candidates therefore would benefit from discussing natural gas as a "bridge fuel" to lower-carbon energy sources. Likewise, more Americans now have solar-powered homes than ever before and have come to understand the differences between that source of energy and wind power rather than lumping the two together as merely "renewable energy." GOP candidates could make headway, Gray said, by touting policies that would increase economies of scale for those technologies.
"Any candidate that's serious about running in the general is going to be smart in saying that carbon pollution is something we have to factor into our energy plans," Gray said.