Credit Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
For years, climate change activists have faced a wrenching dilemma: how to persuade people to care about a grave but seemingly far-off problem and win their support for policies that might pinch them immediately in utility bills and at the pump...
But that calculus may be changing at a time when climatic chaos feels like a daily event rather than an airy abstraction, and storms powered by warming ocean waters wreak havoc on the mainland United States. Americans have spent weeks riveted by television footage of wrecked neighborhoods, displaced families, flattened Caribbean islands and submerged cities from Houston to Jacksonville.
“The conversation is shifting,” said Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii. “Because even if you don’t believe liberals, even if you don’t believe scientists, you can believe your own eyes.”
Despite consensus among scientists, not everyone is convinced that terrifying weather means climate change is an urgent threat. There is virtually no prospect of large-scale federal action on the issue in the near future, and President Trump has made a top priority of unraveling the Obama administration’s environmental policies, including the Paris climate accord. Republicans, who control the White House and Congress, remain broadly skeptical of climate science and rely heavily on the electoral support of oil- and coal-producing states.
But an array of political leaders — including some members of Mr. Trump’s party, along with emboldened Democrats and environmental activists — see the underlying dynamics of climate politics bending, as drastic weather events throw up practical challenges for red and blue states alike. Mr. Schatz, one of the Democrats’ most assertive spokesmen on global warming, said there were already “pockets of opportunity” to work with Republicans on measures to reinforce coastlines and support solar- and wind-energy production, though not on more ambitious policies.
“We can get a fair amount of bipartisanship if we talk about severe weather and resiliency,” Mr. Schatz said. “For some people, it’s just about the phrase ‘climate change’ being too politically loaded.”
Most movement among Republicans has come from moderates and lawmakers from areas vulnerable to flooding, where seeming oblivious to extreme weather could be politically risky. There have been no notable cracks in Republican opposition to climate policy among party leaders, or even within the powerful Texas congressional delegation — a group battered by Hurricane Harvey but fiercely protective of the state’s oil economy.
For the most part, senior Republicans have avoided directly discussing climate in the aftermath of Harvey and Hurricane Irma, which pounded the Southeast this week. They have focused chiefly on scrambling to get government aid to stricken states. The Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, said debating climate now would be “very, very insensitive.”
But in Florida, where Irma left more than a dozen dead and millions without electricity, a handful of Republicans have been more outspoken. The Republican mayor of Miami, Tomás Regalado, urged Mr. Trump last week to reconsider his climate policies. Several Florida lawmakers founded a bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives, and the group’s Republican membership grew this year to two dozen.
The safe ground for Republicans, party strategists say, may be embracing proposals to mitigate certain effects of environmental change, while skirting debate about more drastic actions that experts see as essential.
That approach reached even the White House this week, with Thomas P. Bossert, Mr. Trump’s Homeland Security adviser, declaring that the administration takes “seriously the threat of climate change.” He added, somewhat vaguely, “Not the cause of it, but the things that we observe.”
Representative Scott Taylor of Virginia, a Republican whose district hugs the Atlantic Coast, said his constituents were growing more sensitive to the implications of climate change, including voters who lean to the right. Mr. Taylor, who is a member of the climate caucus, said he was still wary of hobbling fossil-fuel companies, but favors narrower measures to address dangerous environmental conditions. The Republican nominee for governor of Virginia this year, Ed Gillespie, has taken a similar tack, ignoring climate as an issue but releasing a plan on coastal flooding.
“We have to deal with issues like sea level rise and flooding and resiliency,” Mr. Taylor said, cautioning, “I don’t think we’re there, in a bipartisan way, for comprehensive action”
Jay Faison, a wealthy Republican donor who has made clean energy a personal cause, said he found Republicans increasingly open to engaging around the edges of the climate issue. Mr. Faison said he had reason to believe there was “some appetite” among congressional leaders for backing resilient infrastructure and energy research.
“I’d like to see more, faster,” Mr. Faison said. “But we play the hand we’re dealt.”
Political polling has long found most voters sympathetic to policies that protect the environment, including the Paris agreement and rules proposed by the Obama administration to curb power-plant emissions. But Americans have also tended to rank climate low among their priorities, behind issues like health care and jobs.
Still, the trend toward taking climate change seriously has been unmistakable, and pollsters say it may intensify after a season of superstorms. In a Gallup poll this year, 45 percent of Americans said they worried about global warming a “great deal,” a sharp increase from the share in 2016 and the highest ever recorded in the poll. About 6 in 10 said they believed the consequences of global warming are already being felt.
But liberals and conservatives hold widely divergent views on climate, even within hard-hit states like Texas and Florida. And research conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that many who are concerned about climate change remain less convinced it will harm them directly.
Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who has studied climate as a campaign issue, said that it was most relevant to voters as a “reference point” to judge a candidate’s worldview, and that voters tended to see those who reject climate science as extremists. Mr. Garin said catastrophic weather could make certain hard-line views less acceptable.
“The salience of climate change denialism grows at moments when the consequences of that are more abundantly clear,” Mr. Garin said, “such as when the country is hit by two exceptionally powerful storms, one right after the other.”
Is unclear whether climate will play a major part in the 2018 elections, when Democrats are defending a number of Senate seats in states that produce carbon fuel. Climate may feature more prominently in the 2020 elections, when a wider range of states will be contested and the environmental policies Mr. Trump has pursued through executive action — like withdrawing from the Paris agreement — will be more directly at issue.
But some Democratic candidates and political donors hope to punish conservative politicians before then. In Florida, Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat seeking re-election next year, quickly went on the offensive this week, accusing one potential Republican opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, of having ignored the mounting threat of climate change.
And advisers to Tom Steyer, a billionaire investor who has spent millions supporting Democrats, said his political committee might seek to link Republicans in Florida, Nevada and California to environmental catastrophes in those states, like the summer hurricanes and wildfires out west.
Mr. Steyer said in an interview that acknowledging the impact of devastating storms should not get Republicans off the hook for opposing efforts to address global warming over all. He predicted the “human tragedy” of climate change would be a permanent feature of politics. “This is not an isolated incident,” he said of Irma and Harvey. “It’s going to happen again, only worse.”
Mr. Regalado, the Miami mayor, said many of his Republican colleagues were wary of being “called crazy or liberals” if they talked about climate. But he said voters on the ground had grown sharply aware of the risks they face.
“I don’t think my statements are going to change the way the administration thinks or the governor thinks, but let me tell you, people are afraid,” Mr. Regalado said. “People are understanding there is a new normal now.”
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