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Cover Story

Heads in the Sand

As climate-change science moves in one direction, Republicans in Congress are moving in another. Why?


Warning: “Climate change is occurring … and poses significant risks to humans and the environment,” reports the National Academy of Sciences.(UPI Photo/NASA)

Sen. John Barrasso is no stranger to science. The Wyoming Republican is an orthopedic surgeon who earned his medical degree from Georgetown University. His rigorous intellect won him Washingtonian magazine’s designation last year as the “brainiest senator,” based on an anonymous survey of Capitol Hill staffers.

Which is why Barrasso’s reaction when a reporter recently asked his views on climate change was so telling. On his way to the weekly Senate GOP luncheon in the Capitol building, Barrasso paused in an empty hallway to chat. When a reporter said, “Senator, can I ask you a question about climate change?” he fell silent and his eyes narrowed. “I’m busy,” he snapped, before turning sharply and striding away.


PICTURES: In Their Own Words: Republicans on Climate Change

Two days later, the reporter tried again. Approached in the Capitol, Barrasso smiled and appeared poised to answer questions, inviting the reporter into an elevator with him. As the door slid shut, the reporter asked, “Do you believe that climate change is causing the Earth to warm?” A long silence ensued. The senator eventually let out a slow laugh and said, “This isn’t the time to have that conversation.” As soon as the elevator opened, he clapped his phone to his ear and walked briskly toward the Capitol subway.

It’s not surprising that Barrasso avoids talking about climate change. He’s smart and has a background in science, but he also represents the country’s top coal-mining state—and scientific studies show that coal pollution is one of the primary causes of climate change. Any policy to curb climate change would likely hurt Wyoming’s economy.


Democrats in the same position, such as Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, have long been open about this conundrum—the need to address the crisis that climate science says is coming while somehow saving the jobs that could be lost in the fossil-fuel industry. Coal-state Democrats don’t necessarily have a solution; plenty of them clam up when asked about controversial proposals such as cap-and-trade and pollution regulations. But it’s rare to find a Democrat who denies outright the overwhelming scientific consensus that carbon emissions from oil, coal, and gas—also known as greenhouse gases—are causing the world’s climate to warm.

That’s not the case for Republicans. Over the past year, GOP politicians have increasingly questioned or flatly denied the established science of climate change. As the presidential primaries heat up, the leading candidates have either denied the verdict of climate scientists or recanted their former views supporting climate policy. As the tea party grows in influence, and the fossil-fuel industry injects unprecedented levels of spending into the electoral system, challenging climate science has become, in some circles, as much of a conservative litmus test as opposing taxes. Conservatives such as Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who notoriously called climate change a hoax, once were marginalized. Now Inhofe tells National Journal he feels that he’s “come in from the cold.”


In his first week of campaigning for president, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that climate change was a theory that “still has not been proven” and was driven in part by a “substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data” to secure research grants. In his book Fed Up! he dismissed climate science as a “contrived phony mess that is falling apart.”

Mitt Romney, who as governor tasked the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Division with creating a policy to fight climate change, has now walked back his pronouncements that human activity causes global warming.


Newt Gingrich, who in 2009 recorded an ad with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling on Congress to take action on climate change, recently called that ad “the dumbest single thing I’ve done in recent years.” Jon Huntsman, the one Republican presidential candidate who stands by views that climate change is real and caused by humans, is reaping support from about 1 percent of GOP primary voters.

Despite the rhetoric on the campaign trail, a quiet but significant number of prominent Republican politicians and strategists accept the science of climate change and fear that rejecting it could not only tar the party as “antiscience” but also drive away the independent voters who are key to winning general elections. “There’s a pretty good-sized chunk of the Republican caucus that believes that global warming is happening, and it’s caused at least in part by mankind,” said Mike McKenna, a strategist with close ties to the GOP’s leadership. “You can tell these guys are uncomfortable when you start to talk about science.”

As recently as the last presidential election, the debate in Republican circles was far different. John McCain’s 2008 campaign ads promised that as president, he would tackle climate change. Not only that, but McCain was a lead sponsor of the first major Senate cap-and-trade bill in 2003. In a 2008 interview with ABC’s Charles Gibson, Sarah Palin asserted that climate change was affecting Alaska, and in the vice presidential debate she said she would support a cap on carbon emissions. In January 2008, then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who was head of the National Governors Association, recorded a radio ad with Democrat Janet Napolitano, then Arizona governor, urging Congress to act. “Come on, Congress: Let’s get moving.… Cap greenhouse-gas pollution now,” Pawlenty urged.

This article appears in the December 3, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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