Will Republicans Need a New Message on Climate Change in 2016?

Graham suggests Republicans need to find a positive message on climate change heading into the next presidential election. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senate Republicans were swept into power vowing to fight the White House's "war on coal," but at least one says they need a broader message than "no" in 2016.  

“I think there will be a political problem for the Republican Party going into 2016 if we don’t define what we are for on the environment,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said. “I don’t know what the environmental policy of the Republican Party is." Graham, who worked on a climate change proposal in 2010 with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., suggested that what worked in the midterms might not work the next time around.  

Exit polling after the elections showed that nearly 60 percent of voters believe climate change is a “serious problem.”  

According to a Pew poll, the environment is the only one of nine issues where President Barack Obama leads Republicans — and he does so by 15 points .  

Former South Carolina Republican Rep. Bob Inglis — who founded the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, which seeks to convince conservatives to combat climate change — agrees with Graham.  

“If conservatives plan on winning the White House back, we’ve got to have something on the menu that addresses this felt need for action on climate,” he said.  

Inglis’ group has suggested a revenue-neutral carbon tax, as well as smaller steps, such as increasing energy-efficiency standards and more transparent electricity pricing.  

Inglis warned that the 2016 electoral map looks much worse for Senate Republicans than it did in 2014, when Democrats were competing in solidly Republican, or Republican-leaning, states. Younger voters, who are more likely to be concerned about the issue, also are expected to turn out in larger numbers given that it is a presidential year.  

But for now, most Republicans don't seem worried.  

“This is not, in any polling I’ve seen, the most urgent priority for Americans," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who will be majority whip in the next Congress. "And when you look at what their priorities are, which is jobs and the economy, what the president and his party keep producing [are] things that would further dampen, if not, kill, jobs or job expansion.”  

Sen. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill., who voted for a cap-and-trade bill while serving in the House in 2009, said voters' concerns about climate change have receded.  

“The strategic picture on that issue has changed considerably,” said Kirk, who is up in 2016 and is likely to be targeted by Democrats. “People’s preferences in voting are exclusively related to the economy, not to climate change,” he said, dismissing the exit polling.  

Many Republicans dismiss the science too, including Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., who is set to be the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and wrote a book calling the issue a hoax.  

Former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., called the issue “a two-edged sword.” He believes Democrats also have to be careful with the issue because any action Obama takes, such as increased regulation on coal use, would have economic consequences that could spark a backlash against Democrats in important states including Pennsylvania and Ohio.  

“What you need is an adult conversation,” Davis said. But he added that's not likely anytime soon, as the Congress reacts to any executive action on immigration and funding the government.  

Soon-to-be Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., meanwhile, has made no bones about his intent to take on the Obama administration, telling a Kentucky newspaper  that he intends to “go to war” with Obama over the White House’s “war on coal," though it's not clear how effective he can be.  

Since the elections, Obama's moved full-speed ahead to tackle climate change on his own, including an accord unveiled last week with China to lower emissions, which does not have to be approved by Congress. And on Monday, counselor John Podesta indicated the White House also planned to move ahead soon with the EPA's proposed regulations on existing power plants.  

Podesta dismissed opposition from McConnell and the GOP. “I don’t believe they can stop us,” he said.  

As far as legislation, Podesta suggested one modest proposal for compromise — energy efficiency legislation championed by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, which has been repeatedly tripped up by fights over amendments.  

Obama also seems increasingly likely to veto a legislative attempt to approve the Keystone XL pipeline if it reaches his desk. The Senate is expected to vote on the issue Tuesday.  

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has called climate change a real threat that must be addressed and likewise faces voters in 2016, predicted the president's actions would result in an increased debate on the issue in the next Congress.  

“Is that a good thing? Yes. Can we have that discussion? Sure. But will it yield much? I don’t know,” said Murkowski, who is expected to be the next chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  

Murkowski also suggested getting Republicans to agree on a strategy would be a challenge.  

“I think you need to remember that there are 53, or 54 depending what goes on in these elections, on the Republican side of the aisle that have expressed different views and perspectives on it and I think that is an important thing to remember,” Murkowski said, adding that no one senator represents the conference.  

Cutting Congress out of the picture also will make it more difficult for Republicans to participate in finding a compromise, Kirk said.  

Graham said he understands why many Republicans see the issue as more political than substantive, but he is urging the GOP to take the issue on rather than cede it to Democrats.  

"Al Gore has made this into a religion; I can understand why people rebel against it, but to me it’s not enough to say that you think they are all wet when it comes to climate change,” said Graham, who easily won his re-election after facing a tea party challenger this year in the GOP primary.  

"The Republican Party needs to define what are you for.”  

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report. Related: Script Will Be Flipped in 2016 Senate Majority Battle Mark Kirk: No 'Frickin' Way Am I Retiring' Roll Call Results Map: Results and District Profiles for Every Seat Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.