Conservative-to-Conservative Outreach Heats Up Climate-Science Debate

A new group hopes it can change the minds of GOP global-warming doubters.

AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Dec. 1, 2015, 7 p.m.

Late Tuesday morning, a Princeton-trained scientist named Joseph Majkut published a detailed online criticism of conservative claims about climate change. His blog post went after global-warming doubters’ claims about the sensitivity of the climate to rising carbon-dioxide levels and the usefulness of computer models used to predict warming.

It’s fairly standard fare in the blogosphere’s forever war over climate science, where the Left and Right continually joust over the validity of climate science. But in that scrap, Majkut is an outlier: Unlike most of those arguing in support of the scientific consensus, he’s not doing it from the Left. Instead, Majkut is the head of the newly launched Center for Climate Science, which is part of a year-old libertarian advocacy group called the Niskanen Center.

And as he works to help change conservatives’ stances on human-caused global warming, he’s hoping he can make headway where liberal critics have largely failed.

But it will take more than a few blog posts. The rejection of mainstream climate science is rampant among Beltway Republicans and conservatives.

Majkut’s project, which casts a critical eye on those doubters, will be a test of whether voices on the Right can possibly do what years of liberal attacks on GOP denial haven’t: bring about a sea change in conservative attitudes on climate inside the Beltway.

“In the climate-science debate, there is a lot of talk about motivated reasoning—your political positioning determining what you think about the science,” Majkut said in an interview about the project unveiled this week.

“The thing that I think is very interesting and I think is going to be fresh and new about our program is that we are a libertarian outfit with a libertarian policy view, but we are going to take science seriously, and that is a fresh voice,” he said.

He’s part of a still-young think tank led by Jerry Taylor, who was once a senior official at the prominent libertarian Cato Institute and has undergone a major shift in his thinking over the past half-dozen years about the reality and scope of the climate problem.

Changing the conversation about climate science on the Right is something that Majkut says the Niskanen Center and his new project under its umbrella is well-poised to take on.

The group is coming at the problem from a different place than environmentalists and Democrats who savage the GOP’s rejection of the overwhelming view among scientists that global warming is real and driven largely by human activities.

“We have a libertarian, center-right audience. That is the community that Niskanen Center is speaking to and engages with at a policy level,” he said.

Nor is he a voice of dogmatism—his opening post states that “scientists have more work to do to resolve the various uncertainties about why we observe as much climate change as we do and what that that may mean for future warming.”

Niskanen’s announcement of the science-focused initiative says it aims to “critically examine” doubters’ arguments, and Majkut will have help. A pair of other climate scientists—Thomas Cropper and Sarah E. Myhre—have signed on as adjunct fellows.

These days, Taylor is one of a number of conservative voices making the swim-upstream case for a carbon tax (and generally a “revenue-neutral” one like Taylor wants).

It’s a group that also includes supply-side-economics father Art Laffer, former Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former GOP Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, conservative Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, and a number of others.

As the Niskanen Center and some other libertarian and conservative outfits push a carbon tax, something that Taylor and some others want coupled with repeal of Environmental Protection Agency climate regulations, the new climate-science project recognizes that changing views among lawmakers, congressional staff, and other policymakers on the Right is a key piece of the puzzle.

“We want to better inform the climate debate on the Right, and that starts with science,” Majkut said in an interview. “I think what our center is first focused on doing is creating space for there to be a real climate debate right here within the Beltway,” he said.

The climate-science center is launching at a time when battles over climate change are at a fever pitch. While Majkut says the timing is coincidental, it arrives alongside the launch of high-stakes international climate talks in Paris.

It’s also getting rolling during an election season that has seen Democrats and Republicans in familiar corners on global warming, with a number of prominent GOP candidates downplaying or rejecting climate change.

But Majkut argues that election season is a fine time for the effort.

“We regard it as an opportunity. You have seen climate change pop up in Republican debates, people are being asked about it on the trail. As people in elections are getting asked questions about climate change and inasmuch as it becomes an issue in the 2016 election, that gives us a chance to comment and look at what people are saying,” he said.

Changing the conversation about science on Capitol Hill is a key goal, and it’s a place Majkut knows, although not from a vantage point that most conservatives might identify with. He was a congressional science fellow in the office of liberal Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, one of the most aggressive critics of GOP climate views in Congress.

His work in Whitehouse’s office was sponsored by the American Geosciences Institute and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Majkut says his time in that office doesn’t create any problems in his new role.

“The Niskanen Center and Senator Whitehouse agree that climate change deserves a policy response, so the move makes sense. The details of that response may vary, but science is politics-neutral,” he said. “That is one of the center’s key values and something we intend to methodically reinforce.”

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