President Obama and other leaders at the G-7 Summit in Germany made headlines last week pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions 40 to 70 percent by 2050, the first time leading Western nations have committed to such specific long-term targets.  

But even as the targets were being announced, deep skepticism emerged, at home and abroad, about the U.S. ability to meet such ambitious goals. Republicans in Congress, many states and all but one of the Presidential primary candidates, have thus far fought any serious effort to cut emissions, including most immediately fierce resistance to regulations on existing power plants emissions now pending at the Environmental Protection Agency.  


Yet there is mounting evidence that the GOP’s long political free ride regarding climate inaction is about to end.  A series of political, religious and economic developments beginning this summer seem likely to turn climate change inaction into a serious political liability for Republicans, at least at the national level, setting off an intra-party struggle. 

Just last week, Republican businessman Jay Faison launched a $175 million advocacy effort to get the Republican Party to change its views on climate change and clean energy. “We think that there are real Republican solutions to the problem,” Faison said, observing that GOP candidates needed to debate policy solutions to climate change, and stop disputing the science. 

Not to be outdone, Senator Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump pitches new plan to reopen government amid Dem pushback Democrats signal they'll reject Trump shutdown proposal Dems revive impeachment talk after latest Cohen bombshell MORE, who supports a carbon tax to cut greenhouse gas emissions, recently announced his Presidential campaign.  Asked about the climate issue earlier this year, Graham noted “I'd like to have a debate within the party. Can you say that climate change is a scientifically sound phenomenon, but can you reject the idea you have to destroy the economy to solve the problem is sort of where I'll be taking this debate."   The conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute hosted the unveiling of carbon tax legislation only a few days after Graham’s announcement.   

Perhaps most significantly for Republican voters and officials down the ticket in 2016, Pope Francis will issue a Papal Encyclical this week (June 18) making climate change protection a key tenant of church doctrine for America’s 50 million (and 1 billion global) Catholics.  He also will become the first pontiff to address the joint session of Congress, this September, when he will no doubt reprise his appeal directly to the GOP majority. 

Public opinion on climate change has been moving away from Republicans for some time.  Surveys that find two-thirds of Americans are more likely to vote for candidates who campaign on climate change action, including almost half of Republican voters in some surveys.  Polling also indicates that of 15 major policy issues, Democrats enjoy the largest favorability margin—of about 20 percent over Republicans--on the handling of climate change. (WP 2014 poll). Critically, independents favor climate action by a 61-32 margin (polling from the Washington Post and ABC News )

Democrats clearly sense political vulnerability for Republicans, starting with Obama who has pushed the issue this year more forcefully than ever.  At an event last month in Florida, the president took direct aim at the GOP and one its leading issues, national defense:

“Denying [climate change], or refusing to deal with it, endangers our national security and undermines the readiness of our forces,” Obama said.

Senate Democrats, for their part, forced a series of votes on climate change science earlier this year, getting 15 Republicans on the record acknowledging a connection between greenhouse gas emissions and increasing global temperatures, even as a majority of Republicans denied it.  

Of greater immediate concern to most Americans, domestic climate change impacts are becoming more pronounced, especially extreme heat, which in addition to drought in the West is expected to lead to a massive wildfire season this summer. “It’s a witch’s brew,” Tom Harbour, the national fire and aviation director for the U.S. Forest Service, said of the challenges his firefighters face.  The western wildfire season this year is two months longer than it was in 2000, now beginning in mid-March and lasting until November.  And 2015 is already on pace to be the hottest year ever, surpassing the record set in 2014. 

None of this is to say that Republican climate skeptics and their allies will give in on the issue easily.  On the contrary, Republicans in Congress led by Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSunday shows preview: Shutdown negotiations continue after White House immigration proposal Senate to take up Trump's border-immigration plan next week Trump pitches new plan to reopen government amid Dem pushback MORE (R-Ky.), have made the EPA regulations a major political issue, especially in key coal dependent states, urging not only governors to defy the EPA, but even writing an open letter to foreign leaders suggesting that U.S. will not honor the emissions targets the president has committed to. 

Nonetheless, Republican presidential hopefuls, largely given a pass on the issue by the media in 2008 and 2012, are certain to be hard pressed during the upcoming campaign to clarify deliberately obfuscating views on climate science and specific policy proposals. Some like Tea Party favorite Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense: Second Trump-Kim summit planned for next month | Pelosi accuses Trump of leaking Afghanistan trip plans | Pentagon warns of climate threat to bases | Trump faces pressure to reconsider Syria exit Pressure mounts for Trump to reconsider Syria withdrawal Senate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees MORE (R-Fla.) have already been forced to reverse earlier statements outright denying warming and the role of greenhouse emissions.   

Of course, the coming election will be dominated by economic issues, and populist appeals from both parties.   But the economics of fighting climate change have improved substantially in recent years.  The cost of renewable wind and solar sources have fallen dramatically.  Cheap natural gas has eased the transition away from coal.  Energy efficiency measures for cars and appliances have cut costs and emissions. As a result US emissions have fallen even as the economy has grown; America is on track to make its current international emissions pledge of cutting emissions 17 percent over 2005 by 2020.   

Meanwhile, more and more Republicans have important clean energy businesses—and jobs—in their districts as renewable energy has grown far more quickly than other forms of electric power in recent years.  More young voters, a key battleground demographic, say the issue is of high importance to them.   And Democrats are likely to make protecting the American people from extreme climate change a populist issue of its own. 

“I’m not here to talk about climate change,” said Jeb Bush earlier this spring when asked about the issue by a citizen in Iowa.  Given recent trends, he, and all his Republican counterparts, might want to get used to it.

Bledsoe is an energy and climate policy consultant in Washington.  He was director of strategy for the Bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy from 2002 to 2010, and communications director of the White House Climate Change Task Force from 1998-2000.