All three of these options are anathema to the tea party. So what’s a Republican who believes in climate science—but also believes in the tea party’s ability to influence elections—to do?
“I think that there is some genuine soul-searching going on,” said a GOP operative who, like most of the party’s staffers and strategists interviewed for this story, spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue. “If you look around at the environment, there’s nobody smart [saying], ‘No, there’s nothing going on.’ But the tea party is a political necessity.”
For much of the Republican Party, the current strategy on climate science is to, literally, run away from the question.
In an effort to survey Republicans on climate change, National Journal reporters reached out to every GOP senator and representative. Over the course of several weeks, reporters either attempted to interview lawmakers in person, or called or e-mailed their offices.
Most, like Barrasso, rebuffed repeated inquiries. Some flatly refused to answer questions when approached in person, and their offices declined to respond to repeated phone calls and e-mail requests. “It’s not a conversation senators feel comfortable having,” a Republican staffer said.
Several aides initially said that their bosses would be happy to take part in interviews or answer written questions—only to follow up later with clipped refusals.
One GOP House staffer wrote to National Journal to ask if the responses could remain anonymous. Upon learning that the comments would be on the record, the aide said that her boss could not respond. “This issue is too gray and thorny for us to answer in the black-and-white terms you’ve laid out,” wrote the staffer—who agreed to be quoted only anonymously.
Here are the questions NJ asked the Republican members of Congress: Do you think climate change is causing the Earth to become warmer? How much, if any, of global climate change do you think is attributable to human activity? What is the government’s most appropriate response to the issue of climate change?
In the end, 65 GOP lawmakers—40 House members and 25 senators across the ideological spectrum agreed to respond.
Twenty of the 65 Republicans said they think climate change is causing the Earth to warm; 13 said that climate change isn’t causing the Earth to warm; and 21 said they didn’t know, the science isn’t conclusive, or they didn’t want to answer the question definitively. Nineteen said that human activities do contribute to climate change—but of those 19, only five said they believed a “significant amount” of climate change was due to human activity, while 14 said they believed human activity contributes “very little” to climate change. Five said they believed that climate change was not at all attributable to human activity.
The only lawmakers who seemed eager to respond to the questions were the full-throated climate-change skeptics. Inhofe, for example, gladly held forth in an interview off the Senate floor about what he views as the false premise of climate science. Later, when his aide told him the office had received a separate query by e-mail, he called a reporter back on her cell phone to be sure his opinion had fully registered.
Freshman Rep. Allen West of Florida, a leading voice in the House’s Tea Party Caucus, was also unequivocal: “I believe in climate change—winter, spring, summer, or fall,” he said. “Do you believe climate change is causing the Earth to become warmer?” he was asked. “No,” he responded firmly.
Among the offices that refused repeated requests to answer questions was House Speaker John Boehner’s. The speaker’s job is to maintain unity in a caucus constantly on the verge of fracturing and to also try to increase his party’s majority in 2012. His advisers fear that taking a clear position on climate change could crack the caucus in two and stop the cash flow from the biggest campaign money machines.
The problem is that Boehner already has taken a position on climate change. In a July 15, 2008, interview on CNN, he said, “I think that John McCain’s position is not really very different from most Republicans’. The fact is that we have had climate change. Clearly, humans have something to do with it.”
But in November 2010, after the tea party juggernaut swept Republicans into power in the House, Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor formulated a strategy to attack the Obama administration relentlessly on fossil-fuel and climate-change regulations but to keep silent on the issue of climate science. Some tea party Republicans, such as Texan Joe Barton, who is Inhofe’s prominent climate-skeptic counterpart in the House, had looked forward to holding hearings aimed at tearing down the established science. Boehner told Barton to lay off—out of fear, as one staffer put it, that such hearings would get the party branded as “flat-earthers.”