Republicans have a different take on climate.                                                         Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Republicans have a different take on climate.                                                         Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Obama administration is getting a good deal of mileage out of the president’s commencement speech Saturday at the University of California, Irvine, during which he compared deniers of climate science in Congress to those who might have argued, during the race to the moon 50 years ago, that the nation’s celestial obsession was made of cheese.

It was a cheap laugh line, but the speech itself -- which clearly resonated with the thousands of twenty-something voters assembled at Angel Stadium in Anaheim -- underscored what a growing number of surveys and political strategists now make clear: Ignoring the issue of climate change is no longer a viable political strategy, and the GOP risks its fortunes in 2016 and beyond by keeping its collective head in the sand.

Consider just one analysis published earlier this month from left-leaning Public Policy Polling. It asked voters if they would “be willing to support a candidate for President in 2016 who did not believe that global warming was being caused by human activity?” Forty-six percent said no, while only 38 percent said yes.

This is in keeping with findings from the Pew Research Center, which suggest that even though many self-identifying Republicans feel the science is unsettled, a majority -- 52 percent -- nonetheless support addressing climate change with stricter limits on power-plant emissions. A full 67 percent of independent voters also said they support such limits -- a sobering statistic if you’re a GOP candidate looking to run a deregulation platform.

Critics might be quick to dismiss some of these findings as products of left-leaning research organizations, but GOP pollsters also argue that Republicans deny and avoid the changing climate at their peril. This includes Alex Lundry, a vice president with conservative polling firm Target Point Consulting, who recently acknowledged in the Daily Caller that “current headlines and recent polling confirm climate change’s importance to a broad, bipartisan array of voters.”

How Republican candidates choose to engage on the topic, he continued, “will likely influence election outcomes in the near term, not just the distant future.”

Lundry argues that the GOP could address the issue by embracing the science and pursuing free-market solutions that support energy innovation and economic growth. It’s a path articulated by burgeoning conservative groups such as the Evangelical Environmental Network, which argues that addressing climate change is a Christian obligation, or Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, which is lobbying for comprehensive energy policy that includes measures to address global warming.

“If Republicans insist on listening to those that believe we won’t see the effects of climate change for decades,” Lundry writes, “we are setting ourselves up for a political and a policy mistake that will damage the party, and more importantly, the country.”

So far, it would appear that message is falling on deaf ears in Congress.

When PolitiFact decided to drill down on comments from Democratic Governor Jerry Brown of California, who suggested last month that “virtually no Republican” in Washington accepts climate science, the fact-checking organization found that the assertion was more or less true. The group was able to dig up public comments acknowledging the problem, however tentatively, from just eight Republicans out of 278 in the House and Senate -- a rate of about 3 percent.

And when Democratic members of the Senate invited their Republican counterparts to the floor for a discussion of climate change last week, the only one to show up was James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who reiterated his conviction that climate scientists are simply wrong.

In an e-mail message, Rob Sisson, the president of ConservAmerica, a conservative group supporting action on climate change, suggested that deniers like Inhofe are outliers. Most Republican lawmakers, Sisson said, are “between a rock and hard place.” He pointed to the case of Bob Inglis, the former South Carolina congressman who lost his seat in 2010 after acknowledging that climate change is a real problem.

“The small portion of our party that disagrees on climate science is the ‘motivated right,’'' Sisson said. “They’re the ones who grill representatives at in-district town hall meetings and get out to vote in primaries. We must build a broader ‘motivated right’ to backstop legislators to make it safe for them to talk to their constituents about climate.”

In other words, if Republicans hope to capture the White House in 2016, they’ll have to find their voice on climate action and stop cowering at the experience of folks like Inglis, who would no doubt support them. Inglis went on to found the Energy and Enterprise Institute, a group aiming to put “free enterprise to work on energy and climate.”

Speaking on Saturday of science deniers in Congress -- those who call global warming a hoax, or a fad -- Obama noted that “at least they have the brass to say what they actually think.” Far worse, he suggested, are those who claim to be unqualified to engage the topic at all, because they are “not scientists” -- a common rhetorical tactic among Republicans hoping to skirt the issue.

"I'll translate that for you,” Obama said. “What that really means is, ‘I know that man made climate change really is happening, but if I admit it I'll be run out of town by a radical fringe that thinks climate science is a liberal plot, so I'm not going to admit it.’"

If the numbers are right, they’d better start admitting it soon.

To contact the writer of this article: Tom Zeller Jr. at tomzellerjr@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net.