Growing number of Republican candidates express openness to climate action
This story was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletin, an independent local newsroom that allows NHPR and other outlets to republish its reporting.
Robin Tyner knows that people are driving climate change and believes the state should do more to address it.
As an oceanographer and meteorologist, that view is uncontroversial among Tyner’s colleagues. That will not be the case if Tyner wins the election to represent Exeter as a Republican in the New Hampshire House, where climate change is often a partisan issue.
Tyner believes there are problems with how both parties handle climate change. She criticizes the left for focusing on social agendas and virtue signaling, and the right for climate denial and recycling debunked talking points.
“We have to propose better solutions,” Tyner said of Republicans. “Everyone has to be more honest about the science and solutions. The science is clear.”
The Republican Party has long been known for questioning scientific consensus and opposing climate action. But during this primary election, Tyner is one of a growing cohort of Republican candidates open to increased state action on climate change. That view may not gain such candidates votes in the primary among core conservatives, but it could help them win over more moderate independent voters if they advance to the general election.
Political analysts say that shift among Republican candidates could also impact legislative outcomes on climate change in the upcoming session. And different messaging from political leaders on climate could in turn influence the way the party’s base views climate change.
“I’ve definitely seen the way candidates are talking about climate change has changed,” said Anna Brown, executive director of Citizens Count, a nonpartisan nonprofit that conducts candidate surveys and tracks legislative data. “It used to be just, ‘We don’t want to pay to subsidize expensive energy solutions that are not right for New Hampshire,’ whether we’re looking at solar, we’re looking at wind.”
Over the past decade that Brown has been collecting candidate surveys, Republican candidates often dismissed climate change science as junk science that wasn’t worth discussing.
“This is the first year where I’m really seeing comments about, ‘I’m very much in favor of all of the above, and I’m open to considering renewable sources’ and also a lot of questions about how is New Hampshire going to be prepared for extreme storms, extreme weather, extreme heat, flooding on the Seacoast,” Brown said.
Those weather events are already occurring in New Hampshire, which is experiencing increased flooding, sea level rise, and drought, adding immediacy to address the issue.
“I do feel very strongly that it’s important that we take climate into consideration in everything we do,” said Rep. Karen Umberger, a Kearsarge Republican running for re-election. She favors the creation of a state plan to address climate change with details about how the state will move away from using fossil fuels.
This year Citizens Count asked candidates whether they believe the state should do more to combat climate change, a question it added based on voter interest. Among respondents, a third of House Republican candidates and a quarter of House Senate candidates were open to it. That includes those who answered affirmatively, other, or undecided.
“That’s a large enough margin that if there were enough Democrats that are already completely on board, you add that margin of Republicans, and you could see some movement on climate-related issues in the Legislature that maybe hit roadblocks in the past,” Brown said.
Infrastructure is one area in particular where Republican candidates reported an increased appetite. Rep. Dennis Acton, a Fremont Republican, is one of them.
Acton, a homesteader who grows eggs, produce, and seedlings, is running for re-election to the New Hampshire House. He feels the impacts of this summer’s extended drought firsthand and said other farmers in his district do, too. “My voters who are most concerned (about climate change) are food producers like me,” he said.
This summer’s drought halved hay production, Acton said, forcing farmers with livestock to purchase feed on the market at a time when costs were ballooning. “My thing is if you work in an office every day, you can go without noticing a drought,” he said. “If you can’t water a garden and your well is running dry and your plants are dying, it becomes a real problem. It becomes an emergency. Since I’m around the people who are feeling this emergency, we talk about it.”
Acton supports the state building stronger infrastructure in order to prepare for “the eventuality of continued droughts and severe weather.” But he doesn’t believe the state should focus on reducing emissions.
That view is shared by many other pro-climate action Republican candidates, according to the Citizens Count survey. Of Republicans open to climate action, only half were in favor of extending the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which sets how much renewable energy the state requires utilities to purchase.
‘On the precipice of dramatic change’
Meanwhile, there’s a national effort to convince Republicans that conservation is conservative – and that pursuing policies such as increasing renewable energy is the way to tackle climate change.
Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship is an organization that meets with Republican and conservative groups around the country to make the case that climate change is real and that the right needs to propose solutions. Tyner, the Republican candidate from Exeter, is the group’s secretary.
“I think we’re on the precipice of a dramatic change in terms of acceptance,” said David Jenkins, the organization’s president. He believes the group is gaining traction because the message comes from conservatives like himself and points to the conservative tradition of environmental protection.
“If they see the pitch coming from someone on the left, there’s a reflective reaction to that where they want to go in the other direction,” Jenkins said.
In sociology, this is called “negative cueing,” according to Lawrence Hamilton, a UNH sociologist. He described it as one side determining its views in opposition to the other and said the research finds this to be prevalent among Republicans, but not Democrats.
So Jenkins tries to use history to remind Republicans that climate action is consistent with their identity by pointing to the past. He makes the case that the Republican Party has a long but largely forgotten history of environmental conservation: Teddy Roosevelt starting Forest Service and the National Wildlife Refuge System; Herbert Hoover’s efforts to conserve national forests; Richard Nixon creating the Environmental Protection Agency; George H.W. Bush’s Clean Air Act dealing with acid rain.
He’s already seen a change in states like Florida, where he says conservative voters have been swayed by his message. He hopes Republicans in other states will follow suit, rather than let the left dictate climate policy.
“You can’t just say ‘no’ in a situation like this where we’re seeing impacts all the time,” he said. “You can’t simply stomp your feet and say ‘no’ and bury your head in the sand. There’s nothing conservative about that.”
Pushing a rock uphill
While Jenkins is working from the bottom up, Hamilton believes change can occur from the top down when it comes to Republican beliefs about climate change.
In his research, Hamilton has found that party is the greatest single predictor of whether a New Hampshire resident believes in climate change: In a 2021 survey, 20 percent of Republicans believed humans are causing climate change, while 97 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents did.
In the time Hamilton has been tracking this data, the numbers have changed very slowly. “There’s this huge inertia of socio-political identity: Appropriate to my identity is that I have certain beliefs, and my identity is not changing so those beliefs aren’t changing,” Hamilton said. “It’s not that there’s no movement, but it’s pushing a rock uphill.”
But political leaders can change that since they are involved in establishing the positions that make up a political identity to begin with, Hamilton said. It’s called “elite cueing” and could shape broader Republican views on climate change in the state.
Both Hamilton and Jenkins agree that lobbying by the fossil fuel industry is one factor that drove such a significant wedge between Democratic and Republican views on climate change.
“Too often on the political right folks have tended to just listen to industry talking points or special interest talking points,” Jenkins said.
For her part, Tyner is optimistic that the parties will be able to close that gap.
“There is a middle place,” Tyner said. “Neither side has decided ‘I hate children and puppies and snow.’ There’s common ground there. This whole climate thing is affecting things we have in common and we all care about no matter what side you’re on.”
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