Congressional Republican leaders and a number of GOP governors have marched virtually in lockstep for the past seven years in the opposite direction of President Obama’s environmental proposals, particularly regarding the development of emissions-free wind and solar power and initiatives to address climate change. It is now embarrassingly obvious that they are marching to a tune that only they can hear, and that virtually no one else, not even most of their own party, is following along.
A fascinating poll (which can be found here) released last month shows conclusively that the vast majority of Republicans nationwide (see chart below) support government action to spur the development of clean energy sources, policies that by definition would cut emissions and help address climate change concerns. Unfortunately, in the current congressional climate those very same views could get a Republican congressman run out of the GOP-controlled House of Representatives by the give no-quarter Freedom Caucus if its members weren’t otherwise preoccupied with shutting down the whole chamber. Specifically, the poll found that a whopping 72 percent of Republicans said they supported taking steps to spur the development of clean energy. Even among self-described conservative Republicans, 68 percent supported clean energy. In addition, the poll found that most Republicans, even the self-identified conservative Republicans, said the climate was changing and that human activity is at least partially responsible.
It is important to point out that the survey was commissioned by Jay Faison, a North Carolina-based businessman who describes himself as a conservative, and that it was conducted by three Republican polling firms—Echelon Insights, North Star Opinion Research and Public Opinion Strategies. In other words, the findings can’t be dismissed as biased and unrepresentative: GOP leaders may not want to hear the results, but it is clear that this is what Republicans in the Heartland are thinking.
And what they are thinking might make even a Democrat smile. For example, 80 percent of the conservative Republicans in the survey agreed that, “We should accelerate the growth of clean energy so that America can have cleaner, healthier air and less pollution [emphasis in original] at home.” And while that sounds suspiciously like a Democratic policy platform, even 52 percent of the conservative Republicans polled said they “strongly agreed” with that idea.
The conservative Republicans in the poll also voiced strong support for developing clean energy because it would create jobs and boost domestic economic growth—precisely what solar and windpower developers have been saying repeatedly as they have tried to round up congressional Republican support for the tax incentives that have helped the sector get on its feet. The tax incentive effort in the GOP-controlled Congress has been a Sisyphusian one—backers get the incentives extended for a couple of years, and then they expire, forcing them to push the rock back up the hill. But outside the Beltway there is a surprising degree of GOP support for those very same incentives: 54 percent of the conservative Republicans in the poll said the U.S. should increase tax incentives for wind and solar development efforts for the coming five years. Then, participants said, incentives should be ended for all energy sources, another sharp break with congressional GOP orthodoxy, which supports the myriad oil and gas development incentives in the tax code but views other incentives, particularly those for the wind and solar industries, as wasteful liberal luxuries.
What may be the most unexpected finding of all in the new poll is the overwhelming Republican support for rooftop solar and net metering: 86 percent said they supported net metering (the policy, largely despised by utility executives, whereby homeowners with solar panels are compensated for the power they send to the grid) and 82 percent voiced support for rooftop solar in general. Interestingly, support was even higher among the so-called conservative Republicans, with 87 percent backing net metering and 84 percent supporting rooftop solar.
Not surprisingly, the poll also found that about 25 percent of conservative Republicans are “strongly opposed” to carbon fees, government research and development and tax incentives. And that it is the problem; this 25 percent is the vocal minority that has taken control of the party, particularly among its elected leadership, and is preventing action of any kind on energy policies that actually enjoy broad backing by party regulars.
Going forward, Republican leaders, both here and across the states, face a choice that will do much to define the future of their party: They can continue to march in the wrong direction, paying obeisance to the vocal but outnumbered do-nothing extremists in their midst, or they can join the majority of their own followers and lead them (and the U.S.) to a cleaner, brighter energy future. Which direction will it be?