“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 Dec. 3, 2011, edition of National Journal.