All but one of the Republican candidates for president have been asked about their views on climate change in New Hampshire. And conservatives are doing the asking.
Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions is following candidates around the first primary state to get them on the record, and often video, about rising temperatures and cleaner power. Their answers won’t appear in ads attacking them as science deniers. Instead, the small group asks disarming questions in friendly tones, sometimes with the cooperation of the campaigns.
The goal is to coax them toward an issue that historically has been defined as a liberal movement.
“None of this is meant to be a gotcha thing,” said James Dozier, the group’s executive director, based in Washington, D.C. “We want them to see the issue as being important.”
The group describes itself as a Republican organization with a small footprint in New Hampshire, having two paid staffers and up to 10 dedicated volunteers. It paid for polling in three early caucus and primary states -- Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- and found that climate and energy issues are important to a core contingent of Republicans.
So far, the group says it has gotten responses from 16 of the 17 GOP candidates. Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, is the only one it hasn’t asked. The questions don’t often resemble the more frequent inquiries about a candidate’s belief in man-made climate change.
Those can set off psychological alarm bells in a candidate about tribalism, says Bob Inglis, the former Republican congressman from South Carolina who promotes conservative climate action through RepublicEn.org. He’s not involved with Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions.
“If the question is put to a Republican candidate in front of Republican activists, do you believe in climate change, or is it a fact? That question answered in the affirmative will ostracize the candidate from the audience,” Inglis said. “It’s a very awkward question to answer.”
Instead, the group in New Hampshire tries to break the ice with open-ended questions. Sometimes they’re coupled with a personal story from Mike Castaldo, a volunteer who frequents town halls, diners and other local events featuring the candidates. He sometimes talks about his son, who’s enrolled in a technical school program that prepares students for jobs in clean energy and other industries.
Sarah Stewart, a veteran Republican consultant who runs the group’s New Hampshire effort, said she sometimes calls campaign officials ahead of time to notify them of the coming questions. Building their trust is one of the group’s goals.
“The question we most commonly ask is how will you protect our climate, energy and economic security?” Stewart said. “And the candidates usually fall back on their heels and say, ‘Oh, that’s all you want to know?’ It gives them some latitude to go after the sections of that question they’re most passionate about.
“First of all, we’re trying to show them that this is an important issue to voters in New Hampshire,” she added. ”But we’re also trying to provide them with an opportunity to express how they see this issue, and not in a ‘Yes or no, do you believe in climate change?’ [way].”
‘We’re losing the battle’
The answers rarely contain the definitive assertions that Democrats and their allies say are required to avoid the worst effects of rising temperatures. For instance, the candidates don’t often point to the role that people play in climate change, or mention restrictive policies around carbon dioxide.
Instead, the group looks for subtle progress. If a candidate can talk about policies that promote renewable energy, that counts as a plus.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently gave a detailed description to the group about energy policies that produce secondary benefits like lower methane and carbon dioxide emissions. Dozier called that “a very good answer,” in part because Perry inherently acknowledged the challenge of rising temperatures.
“For us, it’s all about getting more and more Republicans to articulate a vision ... on environmental and energy policy, and get us to a place where we can push forward on proposals to lower carbon,” he said.
For Dozier, who described himself as a lifelong Republican and an Eagle Scout, getting his party to act on climate change is a “political imperative.” He suggested that Republicans will face increasingly difficult elections if they fail to attract more young voters.
Gary Lambert agrees. He’s a former Republican state senator who supports the group.
“We’re losing the battle with a lot of voters,” Lambert said. “In New Hampshire, there are a lot of people who are environmentally conscious. We’ve got a lot of farms, we’ve got a lot of woods.
“I think we lose a lot of those people when we say some kooky stuff.”
The group found a prominent supporter last December when Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) outlined a politically moderate vision on the climate that included cooperating with Democrats to achieve market-friendly solutions, rather than focus on overturning President Obama’s rules to reduce emissions at power plants. Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions co-hosted the event (Greenwire, Dec. 4, 2014).
Group officials don’t expect to change the outcome of next year’s nominating process with their questions. Instead, they say the effort will help educate voters and candidates on climate, while building a base of state Republican activists and local officials who can help support things like renewable energy projects.
Dozier said attitudes are changing. He pointed to a vote in the U.S. Senate earlier this year that attracted five Republicans who agreed that humans are having a significant impact on the climate.
“I think this is a conversation that’s probably seven years away from a large, serious solution,” he said.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500