Sen. Marco Rubio says, “I’m not a scientist, man,” but the Florida Republican plays one on TV, so to speak. The potential presidential contender has a national audience listening to his every word as he reads lines from an outdated GOP script instead of a science textbook.
In one recent episode, GQ magazine asked Rubio about the age of the Earth. “Whether the Earth was created in seven days or seven actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that,” said the senator, who sits on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. “It’s one of the great mysteries.”
Not so mysterious, really, according to the vast majority of scientists. They say the planet is about 4.5 billion years old, based on the decay of radioactive elements in samples taken from the Earth.
Yet Gallup polling shows that 46 percent of Americans believe in the creationist view that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. Among Republicans, 58 percent take that view, along with 41 percent of Democrats and 39 percent of independents.
Those numbers give Rubio some political cover at a time when the Republican Party has become increasingly hostile toward scientific realities, from the age of the Earth to climate change. As the leader of the Florida House in 2008, Rubio voted for a bill that would have backed up teachers who offer “critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution.” Maybe Charles Darwin was right, maybe not—who can tell? (Fossils notwithstanding.) It’s not easy to reconcile matters of faith with matters of science, but smart public policy demands it. So does pursuing a leadership role in the post-2012 election rebuilding of the Republican Party.
On climate change, Rubio has been equally dismissive of science. He also has been inconsistent. Before the economy crashed in the fall of 2008, the then-state House speaker presided over a unanimous vote directing state officials to come up with guidelines to limit businesses’ carbon emissions. “This nation, and ultimately the world, is headed toward emission caps and energy diversification,” Rubio said the year before the vote. “Those changes will require technological advances that make those measures cost-effective. Demand toward such advances will create an industry to meet it. Florida should become the Silicon Valley of that industry.”
Rubio also raised concerns back then about the potential costs of a cap-and-trade system and advocated tax incentives for energy-efficient companies and investments in ethanol and other biofuels. But by 2008, with then-popular Gov. Charlie Crist putting climate change at the front of his agenda, Rubio called a federal cap-and-trade system “inevitable” and hired a leading climate-change expert to advise lawmakers. Hal Wanless, chairman of the geology department at the University of Miami, also offered advice and said he talked to Rubio.
“I was up there with some other climate scientists talking about sea levels rising, and [Rubio] said he appreciated what we were doing,” Wanless told National Journal. “He seemed to accept the reality of climate change … but suddenly, when he started running for the U.S. Senate, he had a more uncertain point of view.”
The 2010 Senate race pitted Rubio against the more moderate and increasingly beleaguered governor in a Republican primary in which climate change was a losing issue. Rubio bashed Crist’s cap-and-trade “scheme” and went so far as to question whether humans contribute to climate change.
“I’m not a scientist. I’m not qualified to make that decision,” Rubio told The Miami Herald at the time. “There’s a significant scientific dispute about that.”
In truth, there is largely consensus in the scientific community about the root causes of global warming. Wanless said he was so alarmed by Rubio’s change of heart that he wrote him a letter offering to convene a meeting with a group of scientists. He heard nothing. He pressed the letter into Rubio’s hands at a fundraiser. Still no response.
“I understand that he’s not a scientist, but at some point people need to listen to scientists about science,” Wanless said. “It’s especially critical for a leader representing Florida to understand the reality of climate change. With a six-foot rise of sea level, which is probably where we will be at the end of the century, Miami-Dade, Broward, and Monroe counties are gone.”
And now, as a national political figure, Rubio has to defend his support for the 2008 state law to a broader conservative audience. His explanation is a tough sell. He has said that the law’s requirement that the GOP-led Legislature sign off on the final plan guaranteed that it would be short-circuited. In other words, laying the groundwork for emissions caps was actually a ploy to blow them up. “He has not changed his position” on climate change, said Rubio spokesman Alex Conant.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—potentially, a Rubio rival in the 2016 Republican presidential primary—has done a better job of sticking to conservative principles without running from the research. He acknowledged the impact of pollution on global warming long before superstorm Sandy ravaged his state’s coastline, although he did withdraw New Jersey from a regional cap-and-trade plan because he said it didn’t make economic sense.
A decisive majority of Americans accept the scientific reality of climate change. In a September 2012 poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 70 percent of respondents said they believe that global warming is happening, up from 57 percent in 2008.
Mitt Romney didn’t lose the presidential election because he wasn’t conservative enough. As many Republicans are rethinking the party’s rough edges on immigration reform and other issues, Rubio adviser Todd Harris responded to the buzz over the senator’s GQ interview by digging in, posting on Twitter that the “liberal freakout re Marco’s ‘age of earth’ answer shows their intolerance of opinions different from theirs.”
Except that these are matters of science, not opinion. One doesn’t have to be a scientist, or even a telegenic member of the Senate Science Committee, to know that. If Rubio wants to be the man to rebrand the GOP, he should stick to the facts.
This article appeared in print as "Facts Matter."
Coral Davenport contributed
This article appears in the Dec. 1, 2012, edition of National Journal.