First, the topline findings. They are welcome: A large majority of Americans wants the federal government to act to curb greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming — including a surprisingly large percentage of Republicans. The percentage who think human activity causes global warming is growing, including among Republicans. Huge majorities — including a majority of Republicans — say that if nothing is done to curb warming, it will be a very or somewhat serious problem in the future.
All good news, right? But dig deeper into the internals of the poll — which was conducted with Stanford University and the environmental research group Resources for the Future — and things get more complicated.
For one thing, the percentages who favor action in theory are far higher than the percentages who favor specific policy responses. A large majority, 66 percent, says they’re more likely to vote for a candidate who says global warming is a problem that is caused by our burning of fossil fuels. But only small minorities say they favor increasing taxes on electricity so people use less of it (25 percent) or increasing taxes on gasoline to encourage less driving or more fuel efficient cars (36 percent).
There’s also an intensity difference that suggests Republicans feel far less urgency to act than Democrats do. While 75 percent of Democrats say global warming should be extremely or very important to Democrats in Congress, a paltry 29 percent of Republicans say it should be extremely or very important to Republicans in Congress.
Here’s where the “Climate Non-Committalism” comes in. You may have noticed that Republican officials have of late been repeating the phrase, “I’m not a scientist,” with disconcerting regularity. In other words, they have been increasingly eschewing full blown climate denialism or skepticism for the position that, Yes, the climate is changing, but who knows why, and you know, I’m not a scientist, so I’m not really qualified to talk about this, and, oh yeah, BOO! WAR ON COAL! Look over there, instead!
The new poll helps explain why: This line works, at least among Republican base voters. The poll finds, hearteningly, that 67 percent of Americans are less likely to vote for a candidate who says climate science is a “hoax” and a “fraud”; even a plurality of Republicans (48 percent) is less likely to vote for a candidate who says that. But the poll also tested Climate Non-Committalism, too. It asked whether voters are more or less likely to vote for a candidate who says the following:
“When people ask me if I believe global warming has been happening, I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change, because I am not a scientist. When people ask me if I believe human activity causes global warming, I don’t know. There is significant scientific dispute about that. We can debate this forever. I am not qualified to make this decision. But I am astute enough to understand that every proposal to deal with climate change involves hurting our economy and killing American jobs.”
Americans overall don’t like this line: A plurality, 44 percent, says they’re less likely to vote for a candidate who says this. But among Tea Party supporters, a strong plurality (49 percent) is more likely to vote for that candidate, versus only 25 percent who are less likely. A plurality of Republicans (37-26) says the same.
Which makes sense, right? If Republicans now see global warming as a problem but don’t feel urgently about acting on it, Climate Non-Committalism is a perfect way out. It speaks to the sense that acting just must kill jobs (as Republican leaders keep saying) and also avoids saddling Republicans with an overtly anti-science image that could be harmful among swing voters. (The poll suggests independents really don’t like the “hoax” and “fraud” talk; 72 percent of them are less likely to support a candidate saying that.)
Now, in fairness, a plurality of Republicans also claims to be more likely to vote for a candidate who is prepared to act on global warming. But there may be another reason GOP leaders may be hewing to Climate Non-Committalism, as Coral Davenport and Marjorie Connelly suggest:
Political analysts say the problem for many Republicans is how to carve out a position on climate change that does not turn off voters…but that also does not alienate powerful conservative campaign donors. In particular, advocacy groups funded by the billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch have vowed to ensure that Republican candidates who advocate for climate change action will lose in primary elections.As a result, many Republicans have begun responding to questions about climate change by saying, “I’m not a scientist,” or some variant, as a way to avoid taking a definite position.
So Climate Non-Committalism apparently works. For Republican leaders, anyway.