Maybe it's the pope. Or the freakish year in extreme climate records. It might even be explained by the United Nations climate talks and the bright lights of the presidential election cycle. Whatever the cause, U.S. views on climate change are shifting—fast.
Three-quarters of Americans now accept the scientific consensus on climate change, the highest level in four years of surveys conducted by the University of Texas at Austin. The biggest shocker is what's happening inside the GOP. In a remarkable turnabout, 59 percent of Republicans now say climate change is happening, up from 47 percent just six months ago.
Do you think climate change is occurring?
When public opinion shifts this much in a single survey, a bit of skepticism is justified. (You can take a look at the methodology here.) Yet these results are precisely in line with a separate survey published this month by the University of Michigan, which found that 56 percent of Republicans believe there's solid evidence to support global warming, up from 47 percent a year ago. The Michigan poll also found bipartisan agreement with climate science at the highest level since 2008.
The changing views by Republicans could strand some of the leading presidential candidates in an increasingly unpopular position. Many in the party reject mainstream climate science, and not just at the margins. Republican leaders including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and top presidential contenders Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Marco Rubio all articulate views that would be considered extreme in other countries.1
Republicans are still mixed in support for policies to curb climate change, according to the Texas poll. Just 26 percent of Republicans said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports a tax on carbon emissions,2 a policy with majority support among Democrats. On the other hand, half of Republicans said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who wants to reduce the use of coal or require utilities to obtain a certain proportion of electricity from wind and solar.
Wind and Solar Requirements
The world is at a critical point in global climate talks, with leaders set to meet next month in Paris to hammer out final details of a plan to reduce the long-term trajectory of carbon pollution. Some of the biggest impediments to the talks have been removed in recent months: Significant commitments were made by China and India, and the prime ministers of Australia and Canada were replaced by leaders more sensitive to climate change.
Last year in the U.S., Bloomberg interviewed dozens of former senior Republican congressional aides, lobbyists, and staff at nongovernmental organizations. Many Republicans privately recognized the need to address climate change—in stark contrast to their party's public stance—but saw little political benefit in speaking out. Maybe it's time to reconsider.