By William S. Becker

The science of global climate change is still gobbledygook to most Americans. But watching helplessly as water rises in their living rooms or picking through the ashes to see if anything from their homes is left – those experiences are sending a message that is personal and persuasive. It appears that more Americans are having those experience and applying their own test to whether the climate crisis is real:

If it looks like climate change and smells like climate change and acts like climate change, then it’s probably climate change.  Maybe the government ought to do something about it.

Frank Luntz, the pollster who is infamous among climate hawks for encouraging Republicans several years ago to cast doubt on climate science, has just issued some new advice to the GOP: Republican voters want something done about the growing number and intensity of life-threatening weather disasters.  Luntz’s new research finds:

  • 58% of Americans including Republican voters under age 40 are more worried about these disasters than they were just a year ago;
  • 69% of GOP voters are worried that their party is “hurting itself with younger voters” by denying or avoiding the climate issue;
  • 55% of GOP voters under age 40 are “very or extremely” concerned about their party’s position on the crisis;
  • Republican voters are showing “real anger that leadership has ‘ceded the issue to the Dems’”; and
  • Americans across the country are watching for genuine leadership to develop a bipartisan response.

In sum, the “political temperature” on climate change has changed. Three in four American voters, including 55% of Republicans, want to see the government limit carbon emissions. Voters’ feel their worries aren’t being addressed by the president or Congress. A solid majority believes that national climate policy is headed “pretty seriously off on the wrong track”.

Luntz’s findings are fortified in conversations with Midwesterners who have been slammed by extraordinary flooding in recent weeks. National Public Radio interviewed folks along the Arkansas River, where farmland was under water, levees were failing, and entire neighborhoods were accessible only by boat.

“Somebody at my office told me, ‘We all owe Al Gore an apology’,” one fellow told the network. (Climate-change skeptics have mocked the former Vice President mercilessly since his 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth.)

As I have written before, the politics of climate change will not shift until more politicians fear they will lose their jobs by ignoring global warming. Luntz concludes that we have reached that point just in time for the 2020 election.

So, what do voters want Congress to do? Luntz says he found bipartisan support for a proposal by a group called The Climate Leadership Council to tax fossil fuels and send all of the revenues back to the American people.

That proposal, one of several in Congress to put a price on carbon, is supported by senior Republican thought leaders and several major corporations, including oil companies.  But it has serious flaws. It would take away EPA’s authority to regulate carbon emissions before we know that carbon pricing works, and it would shield oil companies from lawsuits alleging that they knew long ago that climate change is real, but covered it up. Despite its shortcomings, however, the proposal could get momentum going in Congress to develop and approve a better plan – a plan that confronts President Trump with an offer he can’t refuse in his bid for reelection.

There is a message here for Democrats, too. A carbon tax, considered by many economists to be the single most important way to drive down emissions, is not included in the climate-action platforms that most of the party’s candidates for president have issued so far.

“The appetite for seeing real action is palpable to voters of both sides,” Luntz is telling Republicans. “This underlying fact sets the stage for the country and defines the political landscape for climate change.”

Let’s hope that’s true. Let’s hope that real action to deal with the climate crisis becomes the most important factor in who gets elected next year. And let’s hope it is not too late.