Sen. Thom Tillis and three other Republicans seeking the nomination for U.S. Senate in 2014 had a quick answer when asked if climate change was a fact.
“No,” they all said.
Four years and, perhaps not coincidentally, two devastating North Carolina hurricanes later, some of the state’s Republican elected officials have a slightly different answer to questions about climate change.
“It is obvious that humans have some impact on the environment,” said Rep. Ted Budd, a Davie County Republican, at a debate this week.
“I believe the climate is changing,” said Rep. George Holding, a Raleigh Republican, at his debate this week. “I think human activity has all kinds of impacts on the environment.”
Former Charlotte pastor Mark Harris, the GOP nominee in the 9th Congressional District and one of the four Republicans on stage at the 2014 debate, said in a debate last week that “there’s no question the Earth is getting warmer.” But, he added, “I do not necessarily buy into the fact that humans are responsible.”
Budd, Holding and Harris face strong challengers in November in seats Democrats hope to flip from GOP control.
Tillis, too, has moved his position on climate change since that 2014 debate.
“We have to come up with several strategies to recognize reality that climate changes. Sometimes it changes just because it has over the millennia and other times it changes because of human factors,” Tillis said in an August interview with Spectrum News.
The modest changes in position among elected Republican officials is good news, said one former Republican House member with a conservative, free market plan to combat climate change.
“How could you possibly be encouraged by such small steps? It is encouraging to see Republican candidates begin messaging this to the people they fear the most, which is party activists, the people who will destroy you in the next Republican primary,” said Bob Inglis, who represented an upstate South Carolina district for 12 years before being trounced by conservative Rep. Trey Gowdy in the 2010 GOP primary.
Inglis cited South Carolina Republican Gov. Henry McMaster’s use of humor to address the issue in a GOP primary debate earlier this year as one way Republicans are trying to move the debate. When asked about climate change and its impacts on South Carolina’s coast, McMaster said: “The water’s coming up. There must be something melting somewhere.”
Inglis, the executive director of an eco-right group called RepublicEN, said it’s not just elected officials who have established positions on certain issues, including climate change. Inglis said a revenue-neutral, border-adjustable carbon tax imposed by the United State is the answer and would force China, India and other nations to quickly adopt to our standard.
“It’s rank-and-file members, party activists, precinct presidents, who also have a developed world view and serious positions on issues,” he said. “When new information comes in that challenges one of those assumptions, it takes a while for things to turn around. You’re seeing Republican candidates lead toward a more fact-based discussion on climate change, away from out and out denial.”
A recent survey of 60 North Carolina leaders — which includes former governors, university presidents, corporate executives, nonprofit leaders, economic developers, philanthropists, chefs and authors — found that vast majority believe climate change is real and that humans contribute to the problem. Only one respondent said climate change was a “hoax.”
More than 80 percent of North Carolinians believe that climate change is likely to negatively impact the state’s coastal communities in the next decade, according to an Elon Poll conducted after Hurricane Florence. The same poll found majority support for using climate change findings for local planning and ordinances (62 percent), for restricting real-estate development in flood-prone areas (76 percent) and for the believe that hurricanes are increasing in severity (54 percent).
Hurricane Matthew, which had been a Category 5 hurricane, hit North Carolina in September 2016, killing at least 28 people and causing billions in damages, much of it from extensive flooding. Hurricane Florence, which had been a Category 4 hurricane, hit the state in August, bringing record-setting rainfall and swelling rivers across much of the eastern part of the state. Scientists concluded that climate change led to Florence producing 50 percent more rain than it otherwise would have.
“We’ve had devastating loss of life and massive property damage. This is affecting us today. It is affecting our future,” said Democrat Kathy Manning, Budd’s challenger in the 13th Congressional District. “It is long past time for us to take steps that we can take to start curbing the impact of climate change.”
A recent report from the United Nations warned of dire issues, including food shortages, wildfires and more sea-level rise, by 2040 if the world does not address climate change.
If Republicans are moving slightly on the issue, huge disagreements between the parties remain — particularly on what steps the government should take to curb human influences on the environment. In 2017, Trump announced the U.S. would be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, a non-binding global agreement to reduce carbon emissions.
“Even if you were to contend that humans have some role in it, that doesn’t necessarily make it bad everywhere, that doesn’t mean that it’s a bigger factor than natural cycles,” said Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina GOP. “And I think virtually all Republicans are weary of the revolving standards that the left use to control our energy use and free-market capitalism.”
Budd and Holding said any environmental regulations must be weighed against its impact on economic growth, advocating for cost-benefit analysis that the Trump administration has put in place. Critics contend the new rules don’t consider the true costs of environmental degradation, while supporters say removing the regulatory burden has been key in fueling a strong economy.
Both agreed that protecting U.S. jobs was a key.
“My position on this is clear and has not changed. I’ve always believed the climate is changing and that humans have an impact. However, there isn’t agreement on how much of the impact can be credited to humans,” Budd said in a statement provided by his office after the debate. “I’m happy to continue this dialogue, but what I’m not willing to do is support polices that will kill American jobs.”
Said Holding: “It can’t just be the United States that steps up and gets regulated into a position where we’re not competitive worldwide.”
Charlotte Observer reporter Jim Morrill contributed to this report.