As gay marriage garners growing support, so will climate change policies

May 20, 2014, 3:02 PM UTC
Photo by Stuart Isett/Fortune Brainstorm Green 2014

FORTUNE — When President Barack Obama entered his second term, he placed climate change on his list of top three priorities. “I think for this country and the world to ask some very tough questions about what are we leaving behind, that weighs on you,” he said at the time.

In the past 27 months, he’s made minor headway: He finalized standards aimed at increasing the fuel economy of cars and light-duty trucks, he’s directed his administration to take aim at methane emissions, and he’s expected to personally unveil rules for reducing carbon emissions from power plants early next month.

But each initiative is a regulation — not a law — since President Obama has taken these actions independent of a stalemated Congress. Doesn’t that mean that the next president — perhaps a Republican — could simply dismantle them?

Brian Dumaine, a senior editor at Fortune, raised that question at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference on Monday.

Fred Krupp, president of the left-leaning Environmental Defense Fund, brushed off that possibility. Not because it isn’t real, but because voters overwhelmingly favor combating climate change, and it’s becoming more risky for politicians to oppose environmentally friendly acts.

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Krupp said that a recent survey his organization administered with the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters found that 85% of voters under 30 want controls on carbon. The main impetus for that attitude? Extreme weather. “Increasingly, voters are connecting the dots” that climate change is responsible for devastating drought, wildfires, and super-storms, he said, likening the public support that environmental protection is receiving to the widening acceptance of marriage equality, particularly in recent years.

Another panelist, Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey and now the co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, agreed that climate change will no longer be as divisive a topic, mainly because conservatives care about economic growth and national security, and climate change “runs smack into both.”

Bob Inglis, a former Congressman from South Carolina and the executive director of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, said that the severe weather has disrupted some of the Republican rhetoric on climate change. “Shaky ideologies are changed by fact and experience,” he said. Then he presented a comparison of his own: “The country will take unsustainable over unoffered,” he said. That’s what happened with Obamacare; the country accepted it because there was no alternate option. In the same way there was urgency for health care reform, there’s a “felt need” on climate change.

“The questions for us as conservatives,” he said, “is will we be there with solution offered or will we wait, offer nothing, and have the country take the unsustainable?”