Recent surveys jointly conducted by Yale University and George Mason University found that a majority of Republicans (including a plurality of conservative Republicans) support US participation in international climate agreements like the Paris accords. They support regulating or taxing carbon pollution. And they want the United States to get much more of its energy from renewables, and less from fossil fuels.
Yet they also voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, who pledged to “cancel” the Paris climate agreement (though he has since waffled), and to kill the Clean Power Plan and its carbon pollution regulations. And he seems to strongly prefer coal to wind and solar energy, which he has inaccurately described as “not working on large-scale” and “very, very expensive.”
Three key points can reconcile these seeming contradictions. First, Trump is unpopular: The president-elect currently has just a 40 percent approval rating. Judging from the exit polls, Trump won not because people liked the man and policies—in fact, only 38 percent of the voters viewed Trump as even qualified for the job—but because more Republican voters disliked his opponent than disliked Trump.
Second, anecdotal evidence suggests that Trump wasn’t elected based on his policy positions, but in spite of them. It was a “hold your nose and vote” situation for many Republicans; they were inclined to vote for Trump because voters didn’t take him seriously on policy. They just don’t think Trump will actually try to do any of the things he’s said.
Third, even if Republican voters did take his policies somewhat seriously, they didn’t place his comments about climate change policy among their key concerns. While surveys show that—somewhat contrary to expectations—Republicans generally support climate policies, they rank the issue toward the bottom of their list of priorities. In a Gallup poll last year, just 21 percent of Republicans answered that a presidential candidate’s position on climate change is important in influencing their vote, as compared to 69 percent of Democrats.
In short, Republican support for climate-change mitigation policies is broad but shallow. They would prefer that the government take action to curb carbon pollution, but for most, the issue won’t impact their votes.
However, the fossil fuel industry is a major Republican Party donor. Which means that for many Republican politicians, the incentives are thus quite clear—if they obstruct climate policies, they’re rewarded with campaign donations, and they’re not penalized at the ballot box by conservative voters who only mildly disapprove of their actions.
Donald Trump didn’t receive particularly substantial fossil fuel funding during his presidential campaign, which may help explain his wobbly stance on climate change. He simply doesn’t seem to have put much thought into the subject or consider it a high priority, quite like most of his supporters. But many of his nominees to powerful government positions like Scott Pruitt have benefited from oil industry donations, and Trump even nominated the chief executive officer of the world’s largest oil company to be his Secretary of State.
It’s in those key government roles where the rubber meets the road. If Trump’s nominees are approved, the fossil fuel industry will have powerful allies in his administration, and if they do enough damage to America’s efforts to curb carbon pollution, Trump and the GOP may eventually pay the electoral price.
The problem with denial is that it doesn’t change reality. The consequences of human-caused climate change will only become more damaging and undeniable in the coming years, for example with more intense extreme weather such as droughts, floods, and hurricanes. As more Americans become directly affected and start to connect those events to global warming, carbon pollution, and Republican obstruction of policy solutions, the issue will rise up their priorities lists.
On climate change, the GOP seems stuck on the wrong side of history. It’s not costing them at the polls yet, but as with climate change, those consequences are a long-term inevitability.