GOP Candidates Bound to Feel 'Climate Shock' on the Campaign Trail

06/18/2015 09:37 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

Of the 12 declared Republican presidential candidates, only two have acknowledged climate-related problems.

For the others, the campaign trail to the 2016 election is going to involve dancing around climate change issues depending on who their stump speech is directed at -- and it is getting tougher by the day.

These candidates will have to adjust to a sea-change since the last presidential election as more and more campaign-giving businesses acknowledge the need to tackle climate change, including a new lineage of conservatives like North Carolina entrepreneur Jay Faison who has committed $165 million to his ClearPath Foundation to promote climate change solutions and persuade Republicans to accept actual climate science.

This is particularly true if they really want to be the next president.

First, keeping in mind that every U.S. president dating back to Dwight D. Eisenhower has met with the reigning Pope (George W. Bush six times!), it might not be a good move for the candidates who evoke their religious backgrounds to tell the pontiff to stick to theology as he releases a papal encyclical calling for the world's Catholics to take a stand on climate change and environmental stewardship.

Case-in-point is devout Catholic candidate Rick Santorum who said the Pope should "leave science to the scientists," apparently unaware the Vatican operates one of the oldest research institutions in the world: the 400-year-old Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

But enough has been written about conservatives and their ability to cherry-pick Christian values and facts when it's convenient. The real pocketbook issues these science-denying candidates will have to cope with is the new climate change stance being taken by the very business sectors that have traditionally supported Republicans -- including military contractors.

For those pro-defense candidates eager to kick some ISIS ass, they will need to respond as "Commander-in-Chief" to the U.S. military calling climate change a "threat multiplier" and "a serious threat to national security." A recent Pentagon report notes the military is "already beginning to see" the impacts of increased extreme weather.

While the GOP candidates can rely on billionaires like the Koch brothers to fire-up their campaigns with fossil-fuel money, the power industry as a whole has shifted radically since the last election.

Two weeks before he announced his candidacy, Jeb Bush met with coal industry CEOs at a closed door conference in Virginia. He no doubt was briefed on how the coal industry is shifting its campaign from resisting emissions regulations to promoting coal as the path out of poverty for developing nations (meant to counter the Pope's message) even as the divestment movement has persuaded institutions such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Stanford University and the world's largest insurance companies to drop their coal investments.

On the other hand, if the climate denying candidates are expecting support from nuclear power-related industries, they'll need to whistle a different tune.

According to a report from the think tank Third Way, next generation nuclear power has attracted $1.3 billion of investments from more than 40 U.S. investors, including Silicon Valley's Bill Gates and Paul Allen, as well as Babcock & Wilcox, New Jersey-based Holtec International, and Lockheed Martin. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute website, nuclear power's new selling point is it generates lots of electricity "without contributing to climate change." In fact, representatives of 39 nuclear organizations signed a declaration on May 4 in support of nuclear energy as a "key part" of cutting greenhouse gas emissions as part of the "Nuclear for Climate" global initiative.

Interestingly, during a June 3 OPEC meeting in Vienna, John Watson, CEO of Chevron, said "If we are serious about climate change - nuclear power would be on the agenda."

Yes, the nuclear and oil industry actually recognize climate change as a problem. For the climate-denying candidates, it gets worse.

Among the investors who just pledged $4 billion - twice what officials expected - for the administration's Clean Energy Investment Initiative during this week's Clean Energy Investment Summit are Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo.

And last month, the Department of Energy and 17 major utilities launched the Partnership for Energy Sector Climate Resilience aimed at reducing climate-related vulnerabilities to the electric grid. According to the Edison Electric Institute's website: "Global climate change presents one of the biggest energy and environmental policy challenges this country has ever faced." ​

The fact is that major power industry players no longer view climate change as a quaint PR move to tout corporate social responsibility, but rather something that impacts their bottom line and serious presidential candidates need to take notice.

Being the next president also means dealing with the grown-ups on the world economic stage by representing the U.S. among the G7 and G20 nations.

And these are no forums for dancing around climate issues.

Most of the G20 already recognizes the need for climate change policy and a May 25 letter to G7 finance heads asking for action on climate change was signed by 120 CEO's and institutional investors, including the California Public Employees' Retirement System, the New York State Common Retirement Fund, and the AFL-CIO. In fact, the World Bank announced in September that 1,042 companies now support putting a price on carbon pollution.

Back home, those candidates who think government in too big may want to rethink that stance as well. While Ted Cruz said at a press conference we shouldn't politicize last month's Texas flooding, those storms resulted in Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to declare 40 counties disaster areas and President Obama to pledge federal funding. In fact, a group of major insurance companies have asked the U.S. to strengthen its extreme weather disaster policies even as some Republicans push to cut NASA's earth science budget responsible for weather-related satellites.

Meanwhile, the 13 federal agencies that compiled the 2014 National Climate Assessment point to Miami as one of the most climate-change vulnerable cities, which should get the attention of candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush.

Though the connection between extreme weather and climate change is easy to hyperbolize (God's or Mother Nature's wake-up call?), the Weather Channel - owned by a consortium that includes private equity firms The Blackstone Group and Bain Capital, which was co-founded by Mitt Romney - is taking the connection seriously and has targeted conservatives with messages from 25 influential voices on climate change that include former Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, former CIA director James Woolsey, former VP of the Heartland Institute Eli Lehrer, and two GOP EPA chiefs: William K. Reilly and Christine Todd Whitman.

With such growing acknowledgment of the risks of climate change, you'd think it's a good time for the candidates to practice a response to questions on what they'll do about climate change as President.

But even if they ignore this new normal of attitudes towards climate issues, those climate-denier candidates seeking the Hispanic vote will have some "splaining" to do: A January NY Times poll found that 54 percent of Hispanics say global warming is an important issue to them, with 67 percent saying inaction would hurt them personally and 63 percent backing federal efforts to fight climate change.

At the very least, if your a presidential candidate trying to woo the Latino vote, you might want to refrain from telling the leader of the Catholic Church to shut up.