Hotter issue in red states: global warming

From evangelicals to students to business groups, climate change is a rising political concern.

Global warming isn't just a "blue state" issue anymore.

From the Rocky Mountain West to the Southeast, influential red-state voices are beginning to call for more concerted efforts at local, state, and federal levels to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

And they are prodding Washington to address the challenge of adapting to the effects of global warming, which many scientists say are at work.

So far, movement in a handful of red states has been modest when weighed against actions in California or the Northeast. But if this momentum is sustained, it will be harder for congressional and presidential candidates of either party to campaign in these states without backing more aggressive action to reduce emissions than the Bush administration has to date, some political analysts say.

"There is a much broader degree of support for action that is first apparent" as many grass-roots groups in red states see what's at stake, says Timothy Profeta, director of Duke University's new Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy.

Often, it is framed in economic terms - either the costs of disasters or the opportunities of turning native switch-grass into ethanol fuels.

Last week, however, 86 Evangelical Christian leaders - many from conservative Sun Belt states - injected what they see as a critical moral and religious element. The group called for more aggressive US action on climate change, asserting that it is a "pro-life" position in accord with the Gospels, which call on Christians to care for the poor. The group noted that projected effects of global warming are likely to have the most impact on the poor, worldwide. The Evangelical group became the latest example of what some analysts call "reframing voices" on global warming.

Others were evident when delegates from around the world met in Montreal in December to discuss the next steps for two UN global-warming agreements. In the past, often groups from developing nations and island states would describe the potential effects global warming would have back home. This time in an unusual twist, a "first world" panel of local business leaders, city officials, and sportsman's groups from the southeastern US did the same - with the year's record-breaking hurricane season as a backdrop.

Many of the "nonpartisan" or "bipartisan" calls for action appear to come from liberal enclaves in conservative states. Yet that belies a streak of environmental stewardship that runs through many red-state conservatives, notes Georgia Tech political scientist Richard Barke.

"I'm a native southerner, and I don't think that the South or even the traditional Evangelical Christian southerners are as monolithic as some people - perhaps ... some political operatives in Washington - may think," he says, "especially when they are given other information."

He examined students' attitudes on a range of issues, including the environment in a survey in September.

"Our students tend to self-identify as rather conservative, rather Republican," Dr. Barke says. Out of 130 students, "none of them said they were in favor of weakening environmental regulations. And a strong majority said they were in favor of strengthening regulations, including some students who put themselves out on the far tail of ideology and partisanship."

Indeed, some students were upset to learn that their "conservative" views might be welcomed among tree-hugging liberal environmentalists, he adds.

In addition to evangelical leaders, sportsman's groups are also concerned about the regional effects of global warming - in particular on hunting and fishing, which translates into tourist dollars.

"These people are on the front lines" as they traipse across the countryside each season looking for game or a new fishing spot, says Jeremy Symons, head of the climate change and wildlife program at the National Wildlife Federation in Washington.

Elsewhere, coastal states look at the effects of hurricanes Katrina and Rita and "sense that if global warming turns out to be real, the effects on society would be significant," says University of Tennessee political scientist David Feldman.

Yet perhaps taking a page from GOP strategist Karl Rove's 2004 presidential-campaign play book, advocates for more action in red states are increasingly framing the issue in terms of values, as well as in dollars and cents. The Evangelical leaders last week termed it "creation care." For bird-watchers, hunters, and the rod-and-reel set, global warming is often framed as stewardship of resources and activities passed down for generations.

In some cases, these "reframing" voices may bring new people to the table to press for new solutions to global warming. In other cases, a business leader in North Carolina or Mississippi may hunt and attend an evangelical church, and Barke says for some people, these seemingly disparate voices reinforce each other.

"If you were to ask me how the tide will turn in red states, the religious, the business, and the agriculture communities are going to come together to change the dynamics," says Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

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