In a year dominated by economic woes and international strife, voters considered many issues when they cast their ballots. Yet more than ever before, climate change emerged as a central concern. Exit polls show that 6 out of every 10 voters view climate change as a serious problem.
The incoming GOP leadership should mark these numbers. The majority of voters have said in poll after poll they want leaders to tackle climate change. They have not given Republicans a mandate to block climate action at every turn—as new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised to try to do. Dismissing the need to curb climate change pollution will alienate many voters and put the GOP’s 2016 candidates outside the national conversation.
Because times have changed. An ABC/Washington Post survey found that 70 percent of Americans see climate change as a major challenge and support federal action to reduce climate change pollution. Many campaign strategists and pundits took note and addressed the issue head on.
This focus has created an irreversible shift: climate change is now a significant part of the political conversation. Climate denial or evasion may still be viable in some regions of the country and with an off-year electorate. But it won’t work with the national electorate.
Candidates can no longer dodge the issue of climate change. And a climate denier can no longer hope to win the White House.
In the 2012 election cycle, climate change barely registered on the national stage. This year, it appeared across the campaign trail. Moderators asked questions about it in nearly every debate. Candidates wrote it into stump speeches (and even victory speeches, in the case of Senator-elect Peters). And journalists covered their positions in detail.
As the season unfolded, more polls confirmed that voters cared about the climate threat and wanted leaders to do something about it.
A poll for NBC News/The Wall Street Journal reported that two-thirds of Americans support the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. This support reached into purple and red states like Georgia, Louisiana, and Arkansas: a survey conducted by Harstad Strategic Research reported that 53 percent of Republicans, 63 percent of Independents, and 87 percent of Democrats say the EPA should limit carbon pollution.
Republican candidates read these polls too, and some started moderating their positions. In August, former Senator Scott Brown was asked if manmade climate change had been scientifically proven, and he replied, “Uh, no.” But by the time the debates rolled around in October, he said climate change “is a combination of manmade and natural” causes.
Some GOP hopefuls tried to appear open to climate solutions like clean energy. In an Iowa debate, Jodi Ernst exclaimed she drove a hybrid car when challenged about her ant-environmental rhetoric. And Colorado’s Cory Gardner ran a campaign ad featuring him standing in front of wind turbines.
Yet many Republican candidates tried to hedge by embracing the “I’m not a scientist” claim. This way a cynical demurral—lawmakers must have views on a wide range of issues—but it revealed the party’s recognition that straight-up climate denial is no longer a viable position. It took them too long to get here. While they spent years discounting science, the climate clock kept ticking and extreme weather intensified.
But now the political landscape has shifted and the days of denial are over. The vast majority of Americans want lawmakers to confront the climate threat. This is especially true among voting blocs critical to winning national office: women, Latinos, and young people.
Climate solutions create benefits so many Americans value, including clean air, safe drinking water, good-paying jobs, and secure energy that never runs out. The next crop of candidates—and the incoming GOP leadership—turn their back on these solutions at their own peril, because path to the White House now leads through climate action.