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Republicans Care About Climate Change Too. Our Presidential Primaries Ignore Them.

Early Republican primaries prioritize voters who care less about global warming.

Donald Trump gestures to a crowd.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures to members of the audience as he leaves a Get Out the Vote rally on February 10, in Conway, South Carolina, ahead of the Republican primary on February 24.

Somehow, just two weeks into February, the most underwhelming presidential primary in recent memory is pretty much over. Voters in three states (with roughly one in 25 Americans) weighed in, and we’re now facing a Biden-Trump rematch that a “vast majority” of American voters insist they don’t want.

The quixotic primary system, in which a handful of states speak for the entire nation, is plainly antidemocratic. It’s also a raw deal for climate policy at home and abroad. That’s because there’s something that Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada all have in common (besides being the first four states to vote in the Republican presidential primary). All four are home to Republican voters with below-average levels of concern about climate change.

Consider, for example, that Republicans in South Carolina are much less likely to acknowledge that global warming is happening than Republicans in New York (49 percent compared to 62 percent). In electoral terms, these are huge margins. As a result, the convoluted process to elect the next president of the United States gives undue influence to a subset of Americans who are comparatively uninterested in climate action.

It would be wrong to suggest that this pattern alone explains why the majority of the candidates for the 2024 Republican nomination refused to acknowledge the reality of climate change. But the road to electoral victory runs through these early states, so candidates tailor their messages accordingly, often with the help of pollsters who are tasked with mapping out a winning coalition from a particular electorate. This leads to a chicken-and-egg problem: Voters choose their candidates even as candidates choose their voters.

“It’s symbiotic,” Anthony Leiserowitz told me. Leiserowitz directs the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and has been surveying American attitudes on the topic for over 20 years. “Leaders often follow the followers: There go my people. I better go get in front of the parade.

Leiserowitz explained that the state-by-state variation in Republican attitudes is partly due to the political context of each state. “Humans are social animals, and we’re very, very sensitive to what other people around us think and say and do. So as a result … the average Republican in California is quite different—certainly in terms of their climate views—than, say, the average Republican in Oklahoma.”

Put differently: When it comes to climate politics, geography matters, but not in the way one might expect. Geography matters because—despite social media and national news—Republican voters in California are still exposed to a greater number of climate-concerned people in their day-to-day lives than Republicans in Iowa.

But geography is not destiny. Republican voters in some of the most objectively climate-vulnerable states—for example, in the deep-red Gulf states in “Hurricane Alley”—have some of the nation’s lowest rates of climate belief. Just 19 percent of Mississippi Republicans believe that they have “personally experienced climate change,” despite the state’s intensifying struggles with drought, hurricanes, and sea-level rise.

Counterintuitively, psychologists have found that being exposed to these sorts of life-altering climate events has less bearing on an individual’s climate change opinion than their underlying political ideology. “Most of us,” Leiserowitz explains, “do not experience a heat wave and just automatically go, ‘Oh, my gosh, I wonder how much of a role climate change played in this?’ That’s not something that happens for most people.”

But whereas climate-concerned Democratic voters are generally well represented by their elected officials, Republican candidates remain broadly out of touch with their base. Nationally, 64 percent of Republicans support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. None of the four early voting states meet or surpass that national average. Meanwhile, the Republican voters most supportive of climate action—namely, suburban women and people of color—are essential to the GOP’s winning coalition.

At some point, the primary calendar’s anti-climate bias could start delivering Republican presidential nominees whose climate platforms are just too regressive for the national GOP base. “The question,” according to Leiserowitz, “is just how long can they continue to win using and having a set of stances that are increasingly at odds with some of the most important members of their voting bloc?” We may find out as early as November.

While it’s encouraging to imagine a breaking point that forces the GOP’s climate platform back down to earth, the planet is in no shape to wait around. All politics aside, radically reforming the nominating system would be a double victory for democracy and the climate.