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.
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.”
ON THE TRAIL
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.
What changed? Not the scientific evidence. In fact, recent reports from the National Academy of Sciences show that the data and consensus on the principles of climate change are stronger than ever. The reports have concluded that increasing levels of carbon dioxide, produced primarily by burning coal and oil, are trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. A November scientific report by the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes those rising temperatures will, over the next century, bring an increase in the frequency and intensity of heat waves, heavy precipitation, hurricanes, droughts, floods, and rising sea levels.
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In November, Richard Muller, a prominent physicist at the University of California (Berkeley) who was cited by climate skeptics after he questioned some of the data used in Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth, released the results of his two-year Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project, a new study of global temperatures around the world. In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Muller wrote, “Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that.… Global warming is real.”
Here’s what has changed for Republican politicians: The rise of the tea party, its influence in the Republican Party, its crusade against government regulations, and the influx into electoral politics of vast sums of money from energy companies and sympathetic interest groups.
Republicans have long had close financial ties to the fossil-fuel industry, of course. Between 1998 and 2010, the oil-and-gas industry gave 75 percent of its $284 million in political contributions to Republicans. But the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allowed unlimited corporate spending on campaign advertisements, opened up a whole new avenue for interest groups to influence campaigns by flooding the airwaves with ads that support a political candidate or position. In the 2010 elections alone, the top five conservative and pro-industry outside groups and political action committees—including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Karl Rove-backed PAC American Crossroads, which have close ties to fossil-fuel interests—spent a combined $105 million to support GOP candidates (compared with a combined $8 million that the top five environmental groups spent to back Democrats). Both sides could double those numbers in 2012.
Among the most influential of the new breed of so-called super PACs is the tea party group Americans for Prosperity, founded by David and Charles Koch, the principal owners of Koch Industries, a major U.S. oil conglomerate. As Koch Industries has lobbied aggressively against climate-change policy, Americans for Prosperity has spearheaded an all-fronts campaign using advertising, social media, and cross-country events aimed at electing lawmakers who will ensure that the oil industry won’t have to worry about any new regulations.
Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, says there’s no question that the influence of his group and others like it has been instrumental in the rise of Republican candidates who question or deny climate science. “If you look at where the situation was three years ago and where it is today, there’s been a dramatic turnaround. Most of these candidates have figured out that the science has become political,” he said. “We’ve made great headway. What it means for candidates on the Republican side is, if you … buy into green energy or you play footsie on this issue, you do so at your political peril. The vast majority of people who are involved in the [Republican] nominating process—the conventions and the primaries—are suspect of the science. And that’s our influence. Groups like Americans for Prosperity have done it.”
NO WAY OUT
What makes the climate-change problem so difficult for Republicans is that the menu of solutions boils down to an unpalatable handful. Nearly all economists say that the best way to solve the greenhouse-gas problem is with a tax. Put a tax on what you want to reduce—in this case, emissions caused by burning oil and coal—and consumers will use less of it. Politically, that idea has been a nonstarter.
Reagan administration economists came up with a mechanism to cut carbon emissions in a way that harnesses the free market: cap-and-trade. Cap the number of tons of carbon pollution that can be produced, and allow industry to buy and sell permits to pollute. Direct regulation is another way to achieve that goal: Government agencies simply dictating to businesses what they need to do to cut pollution. Most experts say that any global-warming solution will probably also have to include some government spending to promote the development of non-fossil-fuel forms of energy.
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.”
“The speaker’s office made a decision early on not to talk about the science,” said a Republican operative who works closely with House leadership and asked to speak anonymously in order to be candid. “The leadership guys said, ‘We’re not going to talk about it; we’re not going to hold hearings on it; we think the science argument’s a loser.’ ”
No one exemplifies Republicans’ difficulties on climate better than Fred Upton, the Michigander who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the powerful panel charged with writing (and repealing) laws regulating the oil and coal industry’s fossil-fuel emissions. Like his friend Boehner, Upton used to talk about the need to tackle climate change. But the chairman, who in his last campaign received $20,000 from Koch Industries, has had to awkwardly reposition himself to accommodate the new GOP order.
Upton once called climate change a “serious problem” on his website (a phrase he deleted after the 2010 elections), endorsed reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, and sponsored bipartisan legislation to promote the use of energy-efficient lightbulbs. All of that changed after the midterm elections, when he ran against Barton for the chairmanship of the powerful Energy panel. Barton, who likes to say he was “tea party before tea party was cool,” ran an aggressive campaign, challenging Upton’s conservative bona fides (the lightbulb legislation, in particular). Upton tacked hard to the right.
When pressed repeatedly on his views on climate change during an on-stage February interview with National Journal, Upton said he believes that the planet is warming—but not because of human actions. “If you look, the last year was the warmest year on record, the warmest decade on record. I accept that. I do not say that it’s man-made,” Upton said. He has since introduced legislation with Inhofe to overturn the Environmental Protection Agency’s scientific finding that greenhouse pollution threatens public health—a move that surprised some of his constituents.
“I’ve heard Fred Upton say he accepts the science of climate change, at a constituent breakfast two years ago,” said Knute Nadelhoffer, director of the University of Michigan’s Biological Station. “Well, now he appears to be ignoring it or agreeing with the deniers. We want to know why. That’s not a responsible way to craft policy.… We have clear patterns of changing climate in the Great Lakes region—more big storms in spring, more floods that are compromising our coastal cities, and more heat waves and droughts in the summer.”
House Democrats, hoping to spotlight such inconsistencies, insisted that Upton’s committee hold a hearing on climate science. Eventually, in March, he did—but counseled by GOP leadership, almost no Republican members showed up.
More recently, a reporter caught up with Upton in the Speaker’s Lobby off the House floor and asked his views on how much human activity may contribute to climate change. The ever-friendly Upton smiled and said, “I’m not going to go there, thanks,” and headed toward the House floor, where reporters can’t follow.
ISSA AND HALL
Less cheerful than Upton was Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the brash chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He has helped spearhead House Republicans’ attacks on EPA’s new climate-change and coal regulations, bashing them with the “job-killing” stigma. Asked if he believed that climate change is causing the Earth to become warmer, Issa responded, “You mean, the global cooling that’s been going on for the last 10 years, according to scientists? The science has just said we’ve had we’ve had 10 years of no warming.”
In fact, last year NASA reported that January 2000 to December 2009 was the warmest decade on record since the 1880s. The reporter noted the number of such studies—and asked Issa to clarify his answer. “Are you saying, no, you don’t think climate change is causing the Earth to become warmer?”
Issa snapped back angrily, “Do you realize how silly your question is? Your question, if you were going to ask it, is, ‘Do you think increased CO2 is causing the Earth to become warmer?’ I think it may contribute—I have no question that it may be.” He glared at the reporter and said angrily, “Next time, learn to ask your questions,” turned on his heel, and headed back to the House floor.
One senior House Republican who appears comfortable with his positions on climate science is Texan Ralph Hall, chairman of the House Science Committee. Asked if climate change is causing the Earth to become warmer, the lawmaker charged with shaping national science policy responded, “I don’t think it’s the cause. I don’t think we can control what God controls.” Hall said that on the issue of climate science, he is “pretty close” to the stance of his fellow Texan, Rick Perry—believing that climate science may be a conspiracy theory put forth by scientists who are working in concert to receive funding for research. A reporter pointed out that last year, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a survey concluding that 97 percent of climate-science researchers are in consensus that human activities have led to global warming. “And they each get $5,000 for every report like that they give out,” Hall scoffed. He added, “I don’t have any proof of that. But I don’t believe ’em.”
Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., who sits on the House Science Committee, has a special relationship with scientists—they’re her constituents. Her district includes the Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory, which researches high-energy physics and is developing technology that could enable electric cars to travel twice their current distance before recharging. Biggert worries that candidates like Perry will get the party branded as antiscience. “We seem to be moving ahead in a vein that’s not the scientific way,” she said of Republicans. “And that’s a shame, because there are a lot of us that really believe in the sciences and look to scientists. It’s a concern.”
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., a moderate elder statesman who is deeply respected among his party’s old guard, has long been on the record with his worries about the effects of climate change. He signed up his 604-acre farm to participate in the (now defunct) volunteer Chicago Climate Exchange cap-and-trade program, and he has not changed his views about climate science—even though he is expected to be a tea party target in 2012. Lugar calls the Washington climate-change debate “very ill-informed.”
In part, he blames the scientific community for failing to translate and communicate its findings clearly to policymakers in language they can understand. The complexity and nuance is surely ill-suited to the sound-bite simplicity of the Beltway debate. But Lugar says that the only way science can stand up for itself is by entering the fray—loudly, clearly, and simply.
“Many would argue that a predominant number of scientists have said this or that—but whatever they’ve said has not come clearly through to laypersons or members of Congress.… I have gone to conferences for several years and have pled for indicators … that would make a difference in terms of my being able to argue, “ he said. “This may be impractical, but in Times Square, there’s an indicator of how the public debt is rising. We’re going to have to have, for there to be a good public discussion about this, some metric which is understandable.”
But Lugar, like every other lawmaker in Washington, knows full well that Congress has no chance of taking up climate-change legislation any time in the near future. For now, the only policy action that might be possible is battening down the hatches against the floods and droughts that scientists say are on their way—something Lugar saw firsthand when his state suffered devastating flooding earlier this year. “In terms of public policy, we’ll have to deal with more violent storms in the planning of governance for cities that abut rivers and oceans. Whether you buy climate change or not, as a public servant you had better be prepared for many more climate disasters.”
The data showing that combustion of fossil fuels produces emissions that warm the Earth’s atmosphere are ample and historic, and have been rigorously reviewed.
Over the past 18 years, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has produced more than 40 scientific reports and studies on climate change. The most recent, released in May, concludes, “Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems. Each additional ton of greenhouse gases emitted commits us to further change and greater risks…. The environmental, economic, and humanitarian risks of climate change indicate a pressing need for substantial action to limit the magnitude of climate change and to prepare to adapt to its impacts.”
The world’s largest general-scientific society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has published this official statement: “The scientific evidence is clear: Global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society.… The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased markedly over the last five years. The time to control greenhouse-gas emissions is now.”
The world’s major national scientific institutes, including the official academies of Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia, and the United Kingdom have independently published concurring conclusions.
So have the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Physics, the American Medical Association, the American Meteorological Society, the American Physical Society, the American Society of Agronomy, the American Society for Microbiology, the Crop Science Society of America, the Geological Society of America, the Soil Science Society of America, and the World Health Organization—among many other scientific bodies.
In June 2010, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that 97 percent of climate scientists agree on the tenets of anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change, a level of consensus that the journal called “striking,” given the uncertainty often present in scientific research.
No scientific body of national or international standing has offered a dissenting opinion.
“It’s a very, very strong consensus,” says Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences and chair of the National Research Council. The level of certainty within the scientific community that burning fossil fuels warms the global atmosphere is comparable, he said, to the level of scientific certainty that vaccines prevent diseases such as measles and polio.
Perry and some other skeptics say that the scientific consensus on climate change is a fraud perpetrated by scientists working in concert—and that climate scientists falsely manipulate evidence to show that climate change is taking place so they can secure funding or prominence. Scientists say that the rigors of the independent peer-review process effectively make the former claim impossible—and that the latter claim simply doesn’t make sense, because what brings the greatest fame and fortune in science is successfully disproving accepted theories.
“The whole system works on evidence, repeatability, doing the same calculations, testing rigorously to get the same result,” Cicerone says. “If you’re working on a topic the public is interested in, there are more and more people watching what you’re doing. You couldn’t perpetrate a fraud if you wanted to.”
Some skeptics also point to the “climate-gate” controversy as evidence that that the body of climate science, or the peer-review process, has been undermined.
In November 2009, just before a major U.N. climate-change summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, aimed at forging a world treaty to cut fossil-fuel emissions, hackers breached the server of the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit and released thousands of e-mail exchanges between the university’s climate scientists. A small number of those messages contained language that Republican politicians, including Inhofe and Palin, said indicated that the scientists were attempting to falsify climate data. Every independent review of the e-mails concluded otherwise.
Despite the exoneration, the e-mail release succeeded in changing the public debate in the U.S., where GOP lawmakers continue to point to the East Anglia e-mails as evidence that climate science is not settled—and as a reason not to act on climate change. Last month, just a week before this year’s U.N. climate summit in Durban, South Africa, hackers released a second batch of East Anglia e-mails, culled from the original batch released in 2009, evidently with the aim of once again reigniting climate-science skepticism. Once again, the scientific community said that the e-mails do not disprove the core underpinnings of climate science—but they do give new fuel to climate skeptics.
“The science at East Anglia was fine,” Cicerone says. “But I think [the East Anglia scientists] were just angry. They were too poorly equipped, scruffy, and informal an outfit to show everyone all their data all the time. On the scientific consensus, there’s no impact at all—although on public opinion there was an impact.”
Some senior Republicans who have left the battlefield of electoral politics are starting to go vocal with their worries about their party’s stance on climate change—and to take action to stave off its electoral consequences. They fear, in the words of one GOP operative, “that the party is going to drive itself off a cliff with this.”
Conservative economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a senior adviser on McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign who now heads the American Action Forum, a center-right think tank, is working with the climate-policy advocacy group Clean Air-Cool Planet. The New Hampshire-based group has flown Holtz-Eakin to the state several times over the past few months to talk to voters in small living-room meetings about the economic threats of climate change—and the economic benefits of addressing the problem.
Another prominent Republican, John Warner, the former senator from Virginia and secretary of the Navy, is a senior adviser to the Pew Project on National Security, Energy, and Climate, which focuses on the need to develop alternative energy to combat climate change and lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Warner, who cosponsored a major cap-and-trade bill when he was in the Senate, now travels the country, including stops at military bases, calling attention to the national-security concerns of climate change and fossil-fuel dependence.
Working with Warner on the Pew climate-change project is George Shultz, President Reagan’s secretary of State and an adviser to George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. Last year, Shultz, who is a distinguished fellow at Stanford University, cochaired the “No on Prop. 23” campaign in California, which successfully defended the state’s pioneering cap-and-trade law against an oil industry-led effort to overturn it.
“My own opinion is that this problem is very real,” Shultz told National Journal. “I recognize there are a lot of people pooh-poohing it. Whether they like the science or not, there’s a huge problem coming at us. There’s a huge melt coming in the Arctic regions. There’s melting taking place.” Of Perry and other Republicans who deny climate science, Shultz said, “They’re entitled to their opinion, but they’re not entitled to the facts.”
Former GOP Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, who lost his primary race last year in part because he acknowledged climate change, gives speeches and lectures across the country about the need for conservatives to do likewise and begin working on solutions to the problem. Otherwise, the Republican Party will be labeled antiscience, he warns. Inglis takes his message directly to conservative strongholds such as Federalist clubs and meetings of the Conservative Political Action Conference.
“Being branded as antiscience is not a good future for us,” Inglis told National Journal. “How can we say to young people, we’re dismissing science? That’s not a good place for our party to be, and it’s not historically where we’ve been. There are conservative voices that will hopefully show the way back to conservatism and away from a populist rejection of science.”
On November 8, William Reilly, who ran the Environmental Protection Agency under President George H.W. Bush, blasted his party’s stance on science in a widely reported speech. “For some of the most prominent leaders of the Republican Party, science has left the building,” he said. “Science doesn’t feature prominently in these debates. Republicans once were the party of science where environmental policy was concerned,” Reilly contended. Of House Republicans’ recent unanimous vote to overturn EPA’s scientific finding that climate change poses a public health threat, he said, “There was no explanation justifying a position at odds with the findings of 11 National Academies of Science, including our own.”
Another longtime GOP ally, Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, is also disturbed by the party’s shift toward science denial. Anderson, who is Tim Pawlenty’s pastor and worked with the former Minnesota governor on his state climate-change initiatives, in 2006 joined with other prominent evangelicals in sending a letter to President George W. Bush arguing that no legitimate scientific debate remained on the merits of climate science and that evangelicals had a moral obligation to solve a problem that threatens the world’s most vulnerable people.
“Most evangelicals in other countries believe that there is climate change and that we need to do something. It seems to be an American position to deny that,” Anderson told National Journal. “It’s curious to me that there are people who have taken strong positions and then changed them. Many of the candidates were expressing concern four or five years ago. Whenever there are sea changes on particular issues and many get on board, you wonder what changed the political or cultural climate.”
So, will climate-science skepticism help or hurt the Republican Party in the long run? It’s clear that GOP candidates who want to win the backing of the conservative base and the financial support of tea party PACs believe that denying climate science will help them win primary races—and polls show that they are probably correct.
In a Pew survey last spring, 75 percent of staunch conservatives, 63 percent of libertarians, and 55 percent of so-called Main Street Republicans said there was no solid evidence of global warming. Those views are far out of step, however, with those of the general public: Overall, Pew found, 59 percent of adults say there is solid evidence that the Earth’s average temperature has been getting warmer over the past few decades. GOP candidates’ climate-science skepticism could win primaries but lose general elections.
An August poll conducted by researchers at Stanford University found that 77 percent of respondents would vote for a candidate who said he or she believed that climate change was happening and caused by fossil fuels; only 48 percent said they would vote for a candidate who said that science hasn’t shown that humans are changing the climate. Perhaps most notably for the many Republicans who are desperately trying to avoid being pinned down on climate change, 65 percent said they would vote for a candidate who was silent on the issue.
In the long term, Reilly and other voices within the GOP fear that the party’s inevitable reckoning with science may come too late. “Somehow, we’re operating on two levels of reality,” he said. “One is ideological reality, which seems to work for some ideologues. But there is also the scientific reality. It was Republicans who traditionally have pushed for more science to underpin regulations. Science has suffered most severely in the current Republican Party. The ideologues will deny it right up to a point where there’s … a crisis—and then they won’t anymore.”
Olga Belogolova, Kevin Brennan, Julia Edwards, Amy Harder, Sarah Mimms, Stephanie Palla, Christopher Peleo-Lazar, Dan Roem, Hana Rouse, Julie Sobel, Kate Stonehill, Sean Sullivan, and Matt Vasilogambros contributed
This article appears in the December 3, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.