For years, climate change activists have faced a wrenching dilemma: how to persuade people to care about a grave but seemingly far-off problem and win their support for policies that might pinch them immediately in utility bills and at the pump.
But that calculus may be changing at a time when climatic chaos feels like a daily event rather than an airy abstraction, and storms powered by warming ocean waters wreak havoc on the mainland. Americans have spent weeks riveted by television footage of wrecked neighborhoods, displaced families, flattened Caribbean islands and submerged cities from Houston to Jacksonville.
“The conversation is shifting,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. “Because even if you don’t believe liberals, even if you don’t believe scientists, you can believe your own eyes.”
Despite consensus among scientists, not everyone is convinced that terrifying weather means climate change is an urgent threat. There is virtually no prospect of large-scale federal action on the issue in the near future, and President Donald Trump has made a top priority of unraveling the Obama administration’s environmental policies, including the Paris climate accord. Republicans, who control the White House and Congress, remain broadly skeptical of climate science and rely heavily on the electoral support of oil- and coal-producing states.
But an array of political leaders — including some members of Trump’s party, along with emboldened Democrats and environmental activists — see the underlying dynamics of climate politics bending, as drastic weather events throw up practical challenges for red and blue states alike. Schatz, one of the Democrats’ most assertive spokesmen on global warming, said there were already “pockets of opportunity” to work with Republicans on measures to reinforce coastlines and support solar and wind energy production, though not on more ambitious policies.
“We can get a fair amount of bipartisanship if we talk about severe weather and resiliency,” Schatz said. “For some people it’s just about the phrase ‘climate change’ being too politically loaded.”
Most movement among Republicans has come from moderates and lawmakers from areas vulnerable to flooding, where seeming oblivious to extreme weather could be politically risky. There have been no notable cracks in Republican opposition to climate policy among party leaders or even within the powerful Texas congressional delegation — a group battered by Hurricane Harvey but fiercely protective of the state’s oil economy.
For the most part, senior Republicans have avoided directly discussing climate in the aftermath of Harvey and Hurricane Irma, which pounded the Southeast this week. They have focused chiefly on scrambling to get government aid to stricken states. The Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, said debating climate now would be “very, very insensitive.”
But in Florida, where Irma left more than a dozen dead and millions without electricity, a handful of Republicans have been more outspoken. The Republican mayor of Miami, Tomas Regalado, urged Trump last week to reconsider his climate policies. Several Florida lawmakers founded a bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives, and the group’s Republican membership grew this year to two dozen.
The safe ground for Republicans, party strategists say, may be embracing proposals to mitigate certain effects of environmental change while skirting debate about more drastic actions that experts see as essential.
That approach reached even the White House this week, with Thomas P. Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, declaring that the administration takes “seriously the threat of climate change.” He added, somewhat vaguely, “Not the cause of it, but the things that we observe.”
Rep. Scott Taylor, R-Va., whose district hugs the Atlantic Coast, said his constituents were growing more sensitive to the implications of climate change, including voters who lean to the right. Taylor, a member of the climate caucus, said he was still wary of hobbling fossil-fuel companies but favors narrower measures to address dangerous environmental conditions. The Republican nominee for governor of Virginia this year, Ed Gillespie, has taken a similar tack, ignoring climate as an issue but releasing a plan on coastal flooding.
“We have to deal with issues like sea level rise and flooding and resiliency,” Taylor said, cautioning, “I don’t think we’re there, in a bipartisan way, for comprehensive action.”
It is unclear whether climate will play a major part in the 2018 elections, when Democrats are defending a number of Senate seats in states that produce carbon fuel. Climate might feature more prominently in the 2020 elections, when a wider range of states will be contested and the environmental policies Trump has pursued through executive action — like withdrawing from the Paris agreement — will be more directly at issue.
But some Democratic candidates and political donors hope to punish conservative politicians before then. In Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat seeking re-election next year, quickly went on the offensive this week, accusing one potential Republican opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, of having ignored the mounting threat of climate change.
And advisers to Tom Steyer, a billionaire investor who has spent millions supporting Democrats, said his political committee might seek to link Republicans in Florida, Nevada and California to environmental catastrophes in those states, like the summer hurricanes and wildfires out west.
Steyer said in an interview that acknowledging the impact of devastating storms should not get Republicans off the hook for opposing efforts to address global warming overall. He predicted the “human tragedy” of climate change would be a permanent feature of politics.