In the hours leading up to last night’s Republican presidential debate, Governor Jerry Brown of California tweeted out the following question to prospective candidates: What is your plan to deal with the threat of climate change?

Despite the intransigence of the Republican Party on the issue of climate change, the results of two surveys released in the last few days offer a glimmer of hope about where the national conversation on climate change may be going.

It’s not a moment too soon.

Federal inaction on climate change for the last quarter century has become almost surreal. News reports from the West, where devastating drought and historic wildfires are afflicting several states, point to a long-term crisis with no solution in sight. Governor Brown has drawn a direct line between California’s 4-year drought and climate change.

california drought
The perimeter of the Almaden Reservoir in San Jose, California. January, 2014. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Why does this matter for New Yorkers? Because we won’t be able to go it alone on climate change even if we want to. No matter how much we cut back on carbon emissions, our area sea levels and weather patterns will be increasingly impacted by the collective amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Staten Island Sandy
Picking up the pieces on Staten Island after Superstorm Sandy.

The wildfires this summer in California and other states are a case in point. One of the concerns -beyond the local devastation they are causing- is that they are releasing significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Consider this analysis published in yesterday’s Washington Post:

“Before 2000, there is no year on record with more than eight million acres burned across the U.S., according to figures going back to 1983 provided by the National Interagency Fire Center…

Since 2000, however, there have been six years with more than eight million acres burned, and three with over 9 million burned. And 2015, with nearly six million acres burned already — well above the ten year average for this time of the year — could potentially join this list….

It is becoming almost trite to state that this has something to do with climate change. Wildfire risks are strongly influenced by local climatic factors which, in turn, are trending because of changes to the global climate. Heat and dryness favor wildfires — that’s why this year has fire-watchers so concerned, because western drought has been so widespread.”

Where do Americans stand today on climate change?

According to the results of a Quinnipiac University poll released four days ago, U.S. voters support Pope Francis’ call for action to address climate change by a 65 to 27 percent margin.

A younarcher from Coney Island
Marchers from Coney Island at the 2014 People’s Climate March. Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton

Even more interesting, a July, 2015 survey of Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina indicates that there may be broader support than previously imagined for a pro-active national response to climate change.

The survey was commissioned by the National Resources Defense Council Action Fund and the League of Conservation Voters, and carried out by American Viewpoint, which is based in Alexandria, Virginia.

The survey found the following:

1.) The Republican primary electorate in New Hampshire and South Carolina is fairly conservative, yet they still show support for pro-environment policies.

2.) Republican primary voters want to expand the development of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar; and they have mixed views about “traditional” energy sources, such as coal and oil.

Almost three-quarters of Republicans polled -both in New Hampshire and South Carolina- want the U.S. to increase its use of renewable energy.

And, almost three-quarters (72 percent) of New Hampshire Republican primary voters and 68 percent of South Carolina voters say a clean energy plan is important to them when deciding which presidential candidate to support.

The Long Island Solar Farm at Brookhaven National Laboratory, currently the largest solar photovoltaic power plant in the Eastern United States. The plant is generating enough renewable energy to power approximately 4,500 homes. Photo: Brookhaven National Laboratory

3.) There are several clean energy policies that have broad appeal to Republican primary voters.

These proposals all scored well (ranging from a high of 77 percent to a low of 46 percent approving) with Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina:

  • eliminating corporate tax loopholes for oil companies as part of reducing taxes for all Americans;
  • modernizing and upgrading power lines to minimize energy loss;
  • improving energy efficiency in homes, offices, businesses, etc.;
  • expanding access to job training for clean energy jobs; and
  • providing tax incentives for investment in new energy technologies like solar panels and hybrid or electric cars.

Smaller groups of Republican voters were surveyed about setting national targets for renewable energy use, and there was surprising support for this idea as well.

The goal that one-third of all U.S. energy should come from renewable sources by 2030 had the support of almost half of Republicans surveyed in New Hampshire and South Carolina; as did the even higher target of going 50 percent renewable by 2030.

4.) Majorities of Republican primary voters believe in climate change.

In New Hampshire, 51 percent of Republican primary voters said there is solid evidence that climate change is happening; while 48 percent of South Carolina voters agreed with the same statement.

It is worth noting that surveyors did not specifically refer to climate change as “man-made” when they spoke with voters.

5.) There is significant support among Republican primary voters for policies to address carbon pollution.

Nearly 60 percent of Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina favored placing limits on carbon pollution.

Surprisingly, even a majority of Republicans in both states supported the EPA proposal to set strict carbon dioxide limits on existing coal-fired power plants (50 percent in New Hampshire and 52 percent in South Carolina).

There is even greater support for action at the state level. Three-quarters of Republican primary voters in both states favored their state “developing its own plan to reduce carbon pollution and increase the use of clean energy and energy efficiency.”

What makes these survey responses so powerful is that they show a potential way forward for U.S. public policy on climate change. Read more here about the survey’s results and methodology.

Will we ever address climate change at the national level?

In the face of federal inaction, New York State and City have moved ahead on both climate change mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation (preparing for the impacts of more carbon in the atmosphere).

Take a look at the “Climate” section on our website to learn more.

Whether New York State and City are doing enough to address climate change is an open question. But there is no doubt that our elected officials feel they have a mandate to move forward.

South Ferry subway station in lower Manhattan after Superstorm Sandy. Photo: Associated Press

Many states and municipalities are doing the same thing. Look at the city of Chicago’s plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050; or the state of California’s goals to cut petroleum use in half and go 50 percent renewable by 2030.

One reason we may never have federal action on climate change – it has long been argued- is that the American electorate is simply too divided about government’s role in addressing the issue.

The prevailing wisdom has been that a sizable proportion of U.S. voters, especially those not living on the “more progressive” East and West coasts, are ambivalent about concerted government action on climate change, such as establishing a carbon tax or subsidies for renewable energy development.

Republican voters, it is said, are especially reactionary on the topic. After all, they have elected numerous representatives to Congress (and other political offices) who even question whether climate change is real.

But the results of last month’s survey begin to call assertions about American public opinion into question. At the very least, people’s minds may be shifting as Americans suffer through catastrophic storms, historic flooding, devastating droughts and wildfires.

Devastation after Superstorm Sandy.

The real question is this: how prepared are any of the presidential candidates -Republican or otherwise- to fight for their constituents’ views on climate change?