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Sustainable Energy

Republican Attitudes on Climate Change Thaw

Though politicians are increasingly willing to admit the planet is warming, they’re still reluctant to fund clean energy R&D.

Subtly but steadily, Republican attitudes on climate change have been changing. That evolution was confirmed this week by a Yale University/George Mason University poll that found that 56 percent of Republicans nationwide believe that the climate is warming (although many still dispute the idea that human activity is the cause). Five years ago that figure was less than 40 percent.

These Republican voters disagree with the party’s likely presidential nominee, Donald Trump, who has dismissed the threat of climate change. But there’s evidence that even Republican politicians on Capitol Hill are becoming less intransigent on the issue: The Energy Policy Modernization Act, which contains a number of landmark provisions to reduce energy consumption and promote renewable energy, passed the Senate with bipartisan support earlier this month (see “The Five Dumbest Things in the U.S. Energy Bill”). And a new House group, the Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, began meeting this month to seek consensus on energy and climate issues.

This new willingness to recognize reality stems partly from the fact that a strong majority of American voters view climate change deniers as flat-earthers. As Keith Gaby of the Environmental Defense Fund points out, it’s also driven by the fact that many clean energy jobs are located in Republican congressional districts. But that doesn’t mean that Republicans are suddenly eager to take action on clean energy technologies.

The 2017 energy and water appropriations act, currently held up in Congress, would add more than $335 million to the Department of Energy’s budget—but most of that is directed at “defense-related spending.” The bill would cut around $800 million from the agency’s non-defense-related spending.

The appropriations bill "fails to put us on an achievable path toward doubling clean energy research and development," the White House said in a statement. President Obama has threatened to veto it.

Republicans have traditionally resisted federal spending on energy research, arguing that it’s not the government’s role to select and invest in the most promising technologies. As opposed to willful ignorance on the science of climate change, that’s a defensible conservative position. And it means that, just because Republicans are willing to admit that maybe this climate change thing is not a hoax after all, that doesn’t mean that their representatives in Congress will support government-led research to limit it.

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