WASHINGTON — Last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown claimed that “virtually no Republican” in Washington accepts what 97 percent of climate scientists do _ that human activity is likely causing temperatures to rise faster than they would naturally.
Publicly at least, many Republicans on Capitol Hill are skeptical to one degree or another.
“Total fraud,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., a member of the Science Committee in the House of Representatives, told a town hall audience last summer.
“Thousands of people die every year of cold, so if we had global warming it would save lives,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, another California Republican, at a 2009 community forum.
“Now, I’m just thinking out loud here, but do you think it’s possible that as the sun gets slightly warmer, the planets do too?” pondered still another GOP lawmaker from the state, Rep. Tom McClintock, in a 2009 speech to a libertarian policy group.
Even when Republicans aren’t outright dismissive of climate change, they oppose efforts to confront it, citing economic costs. And they’re betting their opposition to President Barack Obama’s climate change policies will help them defeat Democrats in November. The question is whether that could hurt the party in the long run.
The GOP has already found itself out of step with shifting public opinion on gay marriage and immigration. Some party leaders and political observers warn that it risks further damaging its future prospects if Republicans fail to embrace the widely accepted science behind climate change.
Nowhere is the problem more evident than it is in California, where Republicans once championed environmental policies. Now those voices struggle to be heard as the party plays to its conservative base.
“I say to those who don’t like the science _ take a look up north,” said George P. Shultz, who was President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state. “There’s a new ocean being created that wasn’t there before.”
President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty that phased out ozone-depleting chemicals. President George H.W. Bush took steps to curb sulfur dioxide emissions that were causing acid rain.
“All of the really substantive things that have been done about the environment have been done when Republicans were in charge,” said Shultz, who also worked in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations and is now an energy economist at Stanford University.
Another leading California Republican, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, pushed for a statewide cap-and-trade system to curb planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.
Schwarzenegger’s program became a model for a nationwide effort outlined by Obama on Monday to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants. While many Republicans slammed the proposals before the president even announced them, the actor-turned-politician-turned-actor offered his support.
“You only need to look at the decades of scientific research and at the epic droughts and superstorms to know that we can’t wait any longer to take action on climate change,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement Monday. “I hope that the president’s action today is just the first step toward a sustainable energy future.”
But since the country was gripped by a deep recession in 2009 and anger over Obama’s health care overhaul brought a wave of conservative Republicans into Congress 2010, climate change hasn’t been a focus for the GOP. It isn’t mentioned in the California Republican Party’s platform.
Last week, the party’s congressional campaign sent out emails asking if several California Democrats in competitive House races would support Obama’s “job-destroying cap-and-trade scheme” to cut carbon emissions.
When asked whether the GOP was in tune with the public and even itself on climate change, spokesman Tyler Houlton ignored the issue of climate change and framed the debate as one over energy and said that Republicans were winning it.
“Responsibly developing all of our resources, including renewables, is the only way to reduce pollution, keep energy costs down and end our dependency on foreign oil,” he said. “Republicans are the only ones that are taking energy development seriously.”
However, polls indicate that this strategy may be out of step with Republicans overall, as well as some of the key demographic groups the party is trying to woo.
According to a Public Policy Institute of California survey last month, 61 percent of Californians believe that climate change will pose a significant threat to them or their way of life, up from 45 percent in 2003, when Schwarzenegger took office. Among Latinos, now nearly 40 percent of the state’s residents, 81 percent say climate change threatens them.
A survey jointly conducted by Democratic and Republican pollsters last summer found that 68 percent of voters under age 35 would be less likely to vote for a climate change denier. And 65 percent of younger voters said that curbing climate change would help create jobs, not destroy them.
Last year, a Yale University survey found that 77 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents nationwide supported the expanded use of renewable energy sources. And 64 percent favored reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
“The idea that the climate is getting worse has a lot of resonance,” said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego.
Former Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate from Maine who was often out of political step with her party, said the GOP is “going to have to come to grips with the reality” of climate change.
“Wouldn’t Republicans be better served if they’re engaged in these debates?” she said.
Last month in Washington, California’s most senior members of Congress, including Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, and Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Henry Waxman, all Democrats, led a rally of dozens of Washington lawmakers and environmental activists calling for Congress to do something about climate change. No Republicans attended.
“They don’t want to acknowledge the science,” said Waxman, who’s retiring this year after 40 years in Congress. “They have nothing to propose because they don’t want to deal with this issue.”
It’s a contrast to 1972, when Republicans stood with Democrats to override Nixon, who had vetoed the Clean Water Act. William Ruckelshaus, the first EPA administrator, said Republicans broke with the president because the public supported the legislation.
“That did not stand up in his own party,” he said. “Most people have forgotten that.”
Ruckelshaus, now the strategic director of Madrona, a Seattle-based venture capital group, said that people demanded action because pollution was affecting their quality of life.
“We had smell, touch and feel kinds of pollution problems, much like you see expressed in China today,” he said.
California billionaire Tom Steyer has pledged $100 million to an effort to defeat climate change skeptics in several states, and there are signs that Republicans would prefer to avoid being cast as anti-science.
Earlier this month, Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and potential 2016 presidential candidate, said in a TV appearance that he didn’t believe human activity was causing climate change, and proposals to address it “will destroy our economy.”
Rubio later walked back the comment, and prominent Republicans such as Florida Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker John Boeher distanced themselves. Steyer is helping Scott’s challenger, former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who’s now running as a Democrat.
Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, noted that Britain’s Conservative Party made a comeback after a long exile, in part, by changing its position on the issue.
“As a political strategy,” he said, “they decided it was to their advantage.”