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Republican strategists know the party will need to shift its climate platform to retain young voters, but federal Republican officials haven’t caught up to the new trend, says The New York Times’ Lisa Friedman

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DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.

The existential threat of climate change has become a key issue in the Democratic presidential primary. It was the number one issue that Democratic voters said they wanted to hear about in the debates. A July CBS News survey found that 78% of Democratic voters in early primary states actually called the topic “very important,” but the climate crisis is increasingly important to some Republicans too, specifically young Republicans. A Harvard University survey of voters under the age of 30 found that 73% of the respondents disapproved of President Trump’s approach to climate change, and half of those surveyed were actually Independents or Republicans.

These shifting attitudes have grabbed the concern of some presidential strategists, some Republican strategists, but will that be enough to change the Republican Party? Now joining us to talk about this is Lisa Friedman. She’s a reporter on The New York Times climate desk and she focuses on climate and environmental policy in Washington, DC. She wrote the new piece, “Climate Could Be an Electoral Time Bomb, Republicans Strategists Fear.” You can read it in The New York Times now. Thanks for being here, Lisa.

LISA FRIEDMAN: Thanks so much for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: So in your piece, you looked at not only the Harvard poll that I mentioned earlier, but also some survey data from the Pew Research Center from 2018. They found that nearly 60% of Republicans between the ages of 23 and 38 said that climate change is having an effect on the United States. And some 36% believed that that was human-caused. And you also spoke with not only these strategists, but with young Republicans who care about climate change. Did you get a sense of what’s kind of causing the shift among young voters?

LISA FRIEDMAN: So almost across the board, the young Republicans that I spoke to weren’t shifting at all. They were to a person telling me that they have never not questioned the science of climate change. I spoke with a young man who’s from South Carolina. He’s a hunter. He is eager to get his concealed weapons permit. He is pro-life. He campaigned for Rick Santorum in 2016. He sort of hits all of the Republican bona fides, but he was telling me, “Look, climate change is not something that I ever didn’t think was real. We just didn’t have a place to talk about it in my party.” And that’s what he and other of the young activists that I talked to were in Washington trying to do, trying to create a space where they could have a conversation with Republican lawmakers about Republican approaches, Conservative approaches to a problem.

DHARNA NOOR: And you also, of course, spoke with political advisors, analysts, strategists. What was their reaction to this data and did they see that it could have an impact on policy platforms, on strategy for the future?

LISA FRIEDMAN: Sure. Well, I mean, just to take a step back, the way this story started was I wanted to set out to understand how are Republicans treating the issue of climate change in the 2020 campaign. We’ve seen slight shifts in Congress. We’ve seen members of the Republican Party start to talk about climate change more openly, start to acknowledge the science, start to put forward ideas, whether it is investing more in carbon capture and storage technology or nuclear or other things that are more aligned with what their party would seek as a solution to a problem they haven’t quite embraced or acknowledged is happening as a party.

And so what I found was that Republican strategists all are looking at this data. They all see these numbers that you put up on the screen from Pew, from Harvard, from other polling outlets showing that young people, young Republicans, overwhelmingly acknowledge the science, care about climate change, want to see the party take action. And what they all told me was, “We know that there is going to come a time when the party is going to have to shift nationally on this issue, but that time is not now. It’s not going to happen in 2020.” We might see some members of Congress in some areas move on this issue, but nationally as a party, that’s not where the party is right now. And it’s to the great frustration of a lot of these younger voters that I talked to.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. It’s interesting. You wrote, and this is a quote, “Outside of a handful of states such as Florida, where addressing climate change has become more bipartisan, analysts said Republican politicians were unlikely to buck Mr. Trump or even to talk about climate change on the campaign trail, except perhaps to criticize the Democrats for supporting the Green New Deal.” Does that mean that Republicans need to be impacted by climate change before they begin to work towards these kinds of solutions? Because of course, Florida is a ground zero for many of the effects of this crisis.

LISA FRIEDMAN: Right. I mean, certainly that’s one way of making this problem real, right? Florida lawmakers of both parties have come to recognize that this is an issue that cannot be ignored. That’s starting to happen in other states. I mean, and on a smaller level you are seeing it even in places like Wyoming where Senator John Barrasso from oil and gas country, from Wyoming, has introduced a transportation measure that has a climate change section. He talks about climate change. It is happening. But nationally on the campaign trail what we’re seeing from the Republican Party, whether it’s the senatorial committee or the congressional campaign committee, it’s really a focus right now on criticizing the Green New Deal and not doing too much to go against President Trump who has obviously very publicly put forward his views that climate change is a hoax.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. Your article also mentions the recent congressional testimony given by the GOP pollster, Frank Luntz, who led the charge to rename global warming – climate change in popular discourse. So in front of the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis, he talked about his changing views on this crisis.

FRANK LUNTZ: Rising sea levels, melting ice caps, tornadoes and hurricanes more ferocious than ever. It is happening. I will tell you as someone who challenged climate change 19 years ago, which is when the media uses the language against me. That work was done in 2000, 2001 and 2002. That was a lifetime ago. I’ve changed, and I will help you with messaging if you wish to have it.

What does America really believe? First, Americans believe climate change is real and that number goes up every single month. They believe that it is manmade and that number increases every month and that both political and business leaders need to do more right now to address it. Second, climate change matters more to Democrats and less to Republicans. That is true, but younger Republicans do care about it a lot. It is a privilege to sit next to people who get this opportunity to address a Senator at half my age. It makes me feel tremendously old. In fact, as a Republican speaking here right now, I understand how Dr. Kevorkian felt at an AARP convention.

DHARNA NOOR: Could you talk about the significance of that kind of testimony and what the reaction was in Republican Party circles? Do you expect more of that to come from party elders and from party leaders?

LISA FRIEDMAN: I do, and I think it’s a big deal and I think it helps move the needle every time the party hears it. I spoke also in the article to Alex Flint, who runs an organization called Alliance for Market Solutions. He is a Republican who speaks to Republicans only about moving the party on this issue. In his particular case, he advocates for a carbon tax, a price on carbon. What he has been telling members of Congress is, “Look, it is safe to acknowledge climate change.” And one of the things that was so interesting, he showed me a focus group video that he had done of both what he calls lukewarm Trump supporters, Trump supporters who like where the president is on a number of issues, but maybe don’t like his tweets, and core supporters, voters who are with this president 100%.

And in both cases, every person around these tables said, “Yes, climate change is happening.” There was no objection to the science of climate change. What there is a lot of objection to are the solutions that the Democratic Party has put forward and the former Obama administration and others to address it. Obviously, there’s a widespread feeling that regulation is not the way to go. There’s opposition to things like the Clean Power Plan, which the Obama administration put forward to regulate emissions from coal-fired power plants. There’s a real concern about policies that would have to be put in place to make an ideal like the Green New Deal take shape. So they want to see conservative solutions to this problem, but even core Trump supporters acknowledged that there is a problem. The more that that message is heard, I do think it’s making an impact.

DHARNA NOOR: Sure. And do you think that the young Republicans who are interested in tackling this issue are interested in seeing the same kinds of solutions as the old guard? I mean, we’ve seen obviously this huge wave of young people trying to push the Democratic Party to back a Green New Deal. Is there a significant difference in the kinds of policy that young Republicans would support from young Democrats? I thought it was interesting that the Pew Research poll found that 4 in 10 Democrats and about half of Republicans were concerned that geo-engineering, solar geo-engineering, would do more harm than good. So is there a much of a shift between young Democrats and young Republicans and then older Republicans and young Republicans?

LISA FRIEDMAN: Yeah. I mean, I think there really is. I mean, let’s for a moment, stick with the millennial under 40 voters of both parties. I think that is going to be a serious gap that will still need bridging because you have on the left a very strong belief that fossil fuels needs to be ratcheted down immediately. That may take regulation by the federal government, it may take a price on carbon, and it might take shutting down coal plants maybe and gas plants around the country.

On the right, I think among young Republicans, you have that same sense of urgency, but you have a lot more skepticism of the usefulness of regulation and whether government can do the job of solving this problem or if the market can be counted on to take the lead. So that still is not going to be an easy bridge to cross, but where you have common ground is a belief that there is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed.

DHARNA NOOR: And can you talk about the attempts that you have seen from Republican candidates or electeds or strategists to address those shifting issues with actual policy, whether that’s on the local level or some change beginning at the federal level?

LISA FRIEDMAN: Sure. I mean, I think nationally, what you’re seeing is very different from what you’re seeing in some local – states and counties. On a national level, the Trump administration is doing whatever it can to roll back climate science. It is changing—It is attempting to change the report the National Climate Assessment upon which a lot of policies rest and that lays out the state of climate science every four years as mandated by Congress. It is censoring or attempting to censor climate testimony, as we’ve reported, from its own scientists.

And at the same time, the administration is also out there saying, “Look, we are protecting the environment while deregulating.” But when it comes to the issue of climate change, it is not mentioned or there’s an active effort to dismantle the infrastructure of addressing climate change. Locally, it’s very different. I mean, you have Republicans like Matt Gates from Florida who once introduced legislation to dismantle the EPA who has a bill called the Real Green … Green Real Deal? I hope I didn’t—

DHARNA NOOR: I think it’s the Green Real Deal.

LISA FRIEDMAN: It’s some play on Green New Deal, right? That offers his ideas for addressing climate change. You have Greg Walden, the Republican ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who has said very plainly, “Climate change is happening. We need to address it. We don’t agree as Republicans with the Green New Deal, but we have ideas.” They include promoting nuclear energy and includes promoting carbon capture and storage. It includes big hydro. These are things that there should be a big policy debate over and there will be, but there are Republicans who increasingly are coming forward with their ideas. It’s not happening on a national level, though. It’s not happening in the election in a major national way and no one that I spoke to sees it happening nationally anytime soon.

DHARNA NOOR: Sure. And just to wrap up, amongst the young voters who you talked to who generally do vote Republican or will vote Republican when they’re old enough to vote, is there enough of a frustration with the lack of interest in the climate crisis from their party, that it might even shift them to vote for a Democratic or Independent candidate? Or do you think that this is, while an important issue to young voters, maybe not a wedge issue?

LISA FRIEDMAN: The young Republicans that I spoke to were all worried that they and their peers would be driven to the Democratic Party because it is an issue that they cared about so deeply and one that they didn’t see their party engaging on in a strong enough way. None of them want to vote for a Democratic candidate. Everyone that I spoke to has very closely-held beliefs on a number of core Conservative issues, whether it’s on gun rights or abortion. But they say that climate change is a key issue for them, for their peers, and they are worried that there isn’t going to be a place for them in their party when they are older.

DHARNA NOOR: Okay. Lisa Friedman, thank you so much for being here today. As you continue to hear how these shifting opinions do or don’t actually manage to shift the Republican Party, we’d love to talk to you again. Again, Lisa Friedman, reporter at The New York Times climate desk, focusing on climate environmental policy in DC and her piece, “Climate Could Be an Electoral Time Bomb, Republican Strategists Fear,” is in The New York Times now. Thanks for being here.

LISA FRIEDMAN: Thanks so much for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.