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Some Republicans See Missed Opportunity To Campaign On Climate Change In N.H.

A boat motors down a flooded street in Hampton during a king tide in 2019.
David Murray
A boat motors down a flooded street in Hampton during a king tide in 2019.
A boat motors down a flooded street in Hampton during a king tide in 2019.
David Murray
A boat motors down a flooded street in Hampton during a king tide in 2019.

Democrats describe themselves as the only party taking the threat of climate change seriously. And President Trump’s continued denial of climate science and rollbacks of environmental protections haven’t made it easy for Republicans to change that.

But some New Hampshire conservatives think their candidates could be doing more to run – and win – on climate change.

Listen to the broadcast version of this story.

Senate candidate Corky Messner and first district Congressional nominee Matt Mowers have both been endorsed by Trump, and echoed some of his views on environmental issues during the campaign.

But this month, in a debate on NHPR, Messner said he'd support incentives for renewable energy: 

“There are opportunities in alternative fuels that can help the environment – wind power, solar power,” Messner said. “And the market ought to be unleashed to solve those problems.”

It sounds like a classically Republican idea – pro-business, pro-competition – but it goes against President Trump's approach to this issue. Some think this divide has made it hard for conservative candidates tied to Trump to stake out their own ground on climate policy. 

"He doesn't give Republicans a safe place to go on this issue or many issues,” said Tom Rath, a longtime Republican political strategist in New Hampshire.

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Rath thinks climate change “defies characterization” as liberal or conservative, and should be a bipartisan priority.

“It is a core issue that goes to the quality of life in this country and around the world, and we can’t be blind to it,” he said.

Rath has endorsed Joe Biden, and he thinks Republicans have missed an opportunity to work around Trump on this topic in New Hampshire.

Mowers and Messner are both relative newcomers to the state. They've talked in broad strokes about climate change, but Rath said neither has rooted it in local economic concerns. 

"If they don't have a sense of the ethos of the state and what matters, they would tend to view that as some kind of a textbook issue and not understand: it's how the leaves turn on Kancamagus [Highway] that matters,” Rath said. “It's the quality of our water, whether we can fish in the Ammonoosuc [River]… whether we get enough snow in the White Mountains. All these things are material to the way we live, and you cannot credibly be a candidate if you don't get that."

Recent polls, from the Pew Research Center and Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, show that increasing majorities of Republican voters in New Hampshire and nationwide believe in climate change and support some policies to fix it.

One of those New Hampshire Republicans is Lyman Cousens, a retired businessman from Boscawen. 

Boscawen Republican voter Lyman Cousens in front of the Capitol.
Lyman Cousens (courtesy)
Boscawen Republican voter Lyman Cousens in front of the Capitol.

"Yes, I believe in the science. I think it's obvious, with the storms and the fires,” he said. “I think most people are intelligent enough to see what the problem is." 

Cousens supports fundamental climate responses like renewable energy development. He calls himself a Reagan Republican. He's fed up with the polarized politics of 2020, and he thinks Trump has only made it worse, on everything from coronavirus to climate action. 

Cousens has already voted for Joe Biden for president. He said Biden's climate plan might be overly ambitious, but:

"Biden is at least going to make an attempt,” Cousens said. “And Trump will not make an attempt to cure the climate change problem." 

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Party leaders in New Hampshire have endorsed Trump, and didn't respond to interview requests for this story. Neither did college Republican groups at Dartmouth or UNH. 

But some relatively new national groups of young Republicans argue the GOP will lose their demographic if it doesn't focus on climate change. Quill Robinson is vice president for government affairs at the American Conservation Coalition

"Not only is it the right thing to do,” Robinson said, “there's a political necessity for Republicans to talk about this issue – but also propose solutions that are actually going to work and are in line with a more conservative Republican worldview."

That’s because right now, the loudest political voices on this issue are from Democrats like New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an author of the Green New Deal resolution.

Solar panels are installed at the Kingston lumber yard of Northland Forest Products, where Jameson French is CEO.
Northland Forest Products
Solar panels are installed at the Kingston lumber yard of Northland Forest Products, where Jameson French is CEO.

One of its hallmarks is its intersectionality – linking the climate's well-being with that of low-income communities, former fossil fuel workers and people of color.

Conservation advocate Jameson French, who runs a timber company in Kingston, is a former Republican turned independent. He says that focus on job creation could resonate with working class Republicans, but they don't want to participate in a debate framed by progressives. 

"We can't talk about it in the Green New Deal language or it's going to backfire,” French said. “We have to talk about it in a more pragmatic way that appeals to the people that we're trying to get to come back to the table."

There will always be extremes on both sides, French says, and more fights to come, even if Biden is elected.

But he believes the polls that say most people from both parties are ready to move forward on climate solutions. That's why he says the biggest goal for Republicans who care about this issue is to vote out President Trump.

This story is part of By Degrees, NHPR's climate change reporting project. Click here to see more and share your ideas and questions for future stories.

Copyright 2020 New Hampshire Public Radio

Annie Ropeik joined NHPR’s reporting team in 2017, following stints with public radio stations and collaborations across the country. She has reported everywhere from fishing boats, island villages and cargo terminals in Alaska, to cornfields, factories and Superfund sites in the Midwest.
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