WASHINGTON — Rick Santorum calls climate change “a beautifully concocted scheme.” Senator Ted Cruz contends that no climate change has been recorded in the last 15 years, bluntly declaring, “It hasn’t happened.”
Ben Carson, a renowned neurosurgeon, has said, “We may be warming. We may be cooling.” Former Florida governor Jeb Bush grants that climate change is real, but he is unwilling to say it is caused by humans.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, sees a conspiracy: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing noncompetitive.”
Most of the 17 Republicans running for president are skeptical about climate change caused by humans, a stance that appears to line up with conservative voters who hold sway in the GOP primary contest.
But it jeopardizes their chances with the broader swath of voters who will determine the winner of the general election — and Democrats are ready to take advantage of that opportunity.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, is moving rapidly to exploit the Republican opposition by making climate change a central issue in her campaign. This week, she outlined a new proposal to install enough solar panels to power every home in the country. Clinton knocked Republican candidates who punt on the issue by claiming a lack of expertise.
“Those people on the other side, they will answer any question about climate change by saying, ‘I’m not a scientist,’ ” she said Sunday in Iowa. “Well, I’m not a scientist either. I’m just a grandmother with two eyes and a brain.”
Still, Clinton has avoided taking a position on the Keystone XL pipeline. She also has remained mum on controversial topics such as fracking, drilling in the Arctic, and oil and gas exports.
The energy industry has so far donated $1.8 million in the 2016 races, with 82 percent of the money going to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Mainstream scientists say the evidence of global warming is overwhelming. A 2013 report that analyzed scientific papers studying climate change found that 97.1 percent of the studies that took a position on climate change endorsed the idea that humans are causing global warming.
Even the Catholic Church is weighing in. Pope Francis in June called for a “revolution” to combat climate change, saying the scientific consensus was clear and that “doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.” His proclamation earned disdain from several Republican candidates, who said they listened to the church on issues of religion, but not ones of politics.
Climate is not expected to dominate a 2016 campaign that so far is focused on stagnant middle-class incomes, health care policy, and foreign affairs. But it could be a potent weapon in a state like New Hampshire, a swing state where the pristine mountains and lakes are crucial to the tourist economy.
“Anybody who says science doesn’t support it is going to have a hard time making that case in New Hampshire,” said former three-term US senator Judd Gregg, a Republican who also served as governor.
“That’s just not going to fly,” he added. “Most Republicans in New Hampshire are very environmentally focused.”
A large independent vote in New Hampshire also tends to tilt the Republican primary contest in a more moderate direction.
“People live in New Hampshire because it’s beautiful,” said Linda Fowler, a political science professor at Dartmouth College. “You’re not going to get the deniers that you might get in other parts of the country because the kind of old Republican, Teddy Roosevelt conservation sentiment is still strong here.”
Activists are trying to push climate change into the forefront. A group of five college-age climate change activists, organized by 350 Action, has opened an office in Manchester, N.H., and has been going to town hall meetings to confront candidates with questions about climate change. The operation costs $50,000, paid for mostly by small-dollar donations from an e-mail blast, according to spokesman Karthik Ganapathy. It is affiliated with 350.org, a larger organization dedicated to fighting climate change and opposing the Keystone Pipeline.
While Trump and Cruz are among candidates whose inflammatory rhetoric riles environmentalists, the more moderate Republicans in the race, Bush foremost among them, appear to recognize the dangers of angering general election voters. They contend the science is unsettled, while acknowledging that the climate is changing.
“The climate is changing. I don’t think the science is clear on what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural. It’s convoluted,” Bush said in May during a house party in Bedford, N.H. “And for the people to say the science is decided on this is just really arrogant, to be honest with you. It’s this intellectual arrogance that now you can’t have a conversation about it even.”
Bush, like Senator Marco Rubio, another candidate, hails from Miami, a waterfront city that is expected to be harmed by rising seas. Bush has pushed for “adaptation’’ to guard against coastal flooding.
“Whether men are doing it or not — in the case of the sea level rising in Miami — is kind of irrelevant,” Bush said.
Advocates for dramatically cutting greenhouse-gas emissions disagree strongly, of course, that the question of human causation is irrelevant.
Nearly 58 percent of registered voters said they wanted a candidate who would take action to fight climate changes, and 38 percent said the position is very or extremely important, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released in April.
In a poll of voters in the crucial swing states of Colorado, Iowa, and Virginia, nearly two-thirds of voters said that climate change is caused by human activity, according to the Quinnipiac University Swing State Poll released on July 23.
But the surveys also show a partisan split, with Republicans tending to question climate change — and potential solutions to combating it — while Democrats embrace it.
Earlier this year, the Senate voted on an amendment that stated “climate change is real and human activity significantly contributes to climate change.” Only five Republicans voted in favor. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was the only presidential contender who supported the measure; Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Cruz, and Rubio voted against it. (A separate measure took out the word “significantly,” and 15 Republicans backed it. Paul joined in at that point).
“I don’t agree with the notion that some are putting out there, including scientists, that somehow there are actions we can take today that would actually have an impact on what’s happening in our climate,” Rubio told ABC News in May 2014. “Our climate is always changing.”
In addition to Graham and Paul, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and former New York governor George Pataki have said climate change, at least to some extent, is man-made. Paul is the only one of those leaders from a landlocked state.
“When you have over 90 percent of the world’s scientists who have studied this stating that climate change is occurring and that humans play a contributing role, it’s time to defer to the experts,” Christie said during a 2011 press conference. Christie later said that Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged his home state, had nothing to do with climate change.
“When 90 percent of the doctors tell you have a problem, do you listen to the one? At the end of the day, I do believe that the CO2 emission problem all over the world is hurting our environment,” Graham said on CNN last month.
“Here’s a question you need to ask everybody running as a Republican: What is the environmental policy of the Republican Party?” he added. “When I ask that question, I get a blank stare.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.