9 March 2016

The Republican race: Five degrees of climate denial

Dawn Stover

Dawn Stover

Stover is a science writer based in the Pacific Northwest and is a contributing editor at the Bulletin. Her work has appeared in...


In the beginning, you either believed in climate change or you didn’t. And if you believed it was real, you wanted to do something about it.

Politicians have changed all that. Their carefully nuanced pronouncements on climate change have created a host of intermediate positions on the subject. While some continue to deny that the planet is warming, others are trying to dodge the “denier” label by espousing views that are somewhat less hostile to climate science. Recently, media reports have proclaimed that GOP presidential candidates John Kasich and Marco Rubio “believe in the science behind climate change.” Kasich has even fooled some of my smartest friends into thinking he’s a climate convert, but in fact he’s just a more talented dissembler than Rubio.

Look closely at statements by Kasich and others, and it’s clear that climate denial has not gone away; it has simply graduated to a new level of sophistication. Although none of the remaining Republican candidates for president have any plan to combat global warming, some of them have reached a more advanced level of denial than others. Here are the stages of climate denial staked out by the presidential candidates:

Stage 1 denial: The climate is not changing. Republican views on climate may be evolving, but Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are still stuck in the primordial ooze. Trump has called global warming a “hoax” and said he doesn’t believe in it. Although Cruz voted for a Senate amendment in January 2015 that affirmed “climate change is real and is not a hoax,” five months later he called it a “pseudoscientific theory” and asserted that satellite data show no warming.

In fact, scientific reports have been unequivocal that the planet’s average surface temperature has risen by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century. Most of this warming has happened since the 1970s, with all 10 of the warmest years occurring in the past 12 years. Earth’s surface temperatures last year “were the warmest since modern record keeping began in 1880,” according to independent analyses by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. At least 70 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, “believe there is solid evidence of global warming over the past four decades.”

Stage 2: The climate might be changing, or it might not. This stage is where you’ll find politicians who profess complete ignorance about whether the planet is warming. Marco Rubio was at this level in 2010, when he told The Miami Herald, “I’m not a scientist. I’m not qualified to make that decision. There’s a significant scientific dispute about that.”

Stage 3: Climate change is real, but it’s natural. By 2014, Rubio had graduated to this level, saying “our climate is always changing” but that he did not believe human activity was responsible for dramatic changes. In January 2015, he voted against legislation affirming that human activity significantly contributes to climate change. Rubio moved on to stage 4 in 2015, but Ben Carson—who dropped out of the race on March 4—never made it out of stage 3, saying “There’s always going to be either cooling or warming going on.”

Stage 4: Climate change is real, but there’s no scientific consensus that humans are the primary cause. Stage 4 is where Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Jeb Bush (when he was still in the race) and a lot of Republican voters have most recently congregated. At this stage, politicians acknowledge that humans are responsible for some warming but insist that scientists don’t know how much. Rubio, for example, told Fox News in November 2015 that the percentage of climate change “that is due to man’s activity is not something there is a consensus on.”

In actuality, it has been almost a decade since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that most of the observed warming since the mid-20th century is very likely a result of human activities—defining “very likely” as having a probability somewhere between 90 and 100 percent. The most recent IPCC assessment report, finalized in 2014, increased the certainty level to “extremely likely,” or at least 95 percent. And of course there’s that pesky 97 percent consensus among peer-reviewed scientific papers discussing the cause of recent climate change.

Many media outlets have suggested that Kasich is an exception in the GOP race. An NPR rundown of the candidates’ positions on climate change published in August 2015, for example, counted Kasich among candidates who “ha[ve] said climate change is man-made,” but linked to an article in which Kasich said only that “we should use common sense” to protect the environment. NPR included a footnote to indicate that Bush and three other candidates had “expressed doubt about the degree to which humans play a role,” but Kasich got a free pass.

More recently, US News & World Report reported: “In contrast to other Republican candidates, John Kasich has said that he believes climate change is happening and is concerned about it.” Sorry, but Kasich does not deserve an attaboy for acknowledging what is plain for all to see. It shouldn’t have taken him 10 visits to Glacier National Park to figure out that glaciers are melting.

Moreover, there is no real daylight between Kasich and Rubio on climate. Even though Kasich acknowledges that humans contribute to climate change, and has recently been calling for more development of renewable energy, he continues to insist that he doesn’t know to what degree humans are responsible for global warming. In August 2015, one day before NPR put him in the “climate change is man-made” column, Kasich called man-made climate change “some theory that’s not proven,” and the following month he said, “I don’t believe that humans are the primary cause of climate change.”

The only difference between Kasich and Rubio is that Kasich has repeatedly used the word “believe” to describe his position on climate change, and painted himself as a Republican rebel for doing so. Kasich believes in something, but it’s not science. Both Kasich and Rubio refuse to acknowledge the overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is anthropogenic in origin. For that reason, neither of them deserves a promotion from denier to “skeptic.” They haven’t yet earned an A in AGW—anthropogenic global warming.

Science aside, no Republican candidates are aligned with public opinion on global warming. Since 2010, according to Gallup polling, the majority of Americans have agreed that global warming is due more to human activities than to naturally occurring changes in the environment.

Stage 5: Human activities are the primary cause of global warming, but plans to reduce emissions won’t work or are too expensive. Both Kasich and Rubio appear to be on the verge of graduating to stage 5. Kasich has talked about being careful not to overreact to the climate problem, saying that potential solutions could put people out of work. Both Kasich and Rubio have called for scrapping the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which would reduce emissions at power plants, and neither of them mention climate change in their action plans.

Here too, the candidates are bucking public opinion. As the NPR overview of the candidates’ positions noted, “Nearly three-quarters of Americans now favor government action on climate change.” A November 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center found that about two-thirds of Americans supported stricter limits on power plant emissions to mitigate climate change.

It’s not hard to come up with a theory about why Republicans don’t “believe” in anthropogenic global warming: Just follow the money. As The Guardian reported on March 3, “About one in three dollars donated to Republican hopefuls from mega-rich individuals came from people who owe their fortunes to fossil fuels—and who stand to lose the most in the fight against climate change.” The titans of the industry gave more than $100 million to Republican presidential candidates in 2015. Ted Cruz, the biggest denier in the GOP race, is also the biggest beneficiary of fossil fuel campaign funding.

Beyond denial. On the Democratic side of the presidential race, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders not only believe that climate change is happening and is mostly caused by human activities, but also have put forth proposals to do something about it. Clinton’s plan focuses on making America “the world’s clean energy superpower,” setting a goal to install 500 million solar panels by the end of her first term. Sanders’ plan starts by eliminating subsidies for fossil fuel companies.

The Democratic candidates are not completely immune to denial. They often overstate the ease of transitioning to a low-carbon economy and the number of jobs that would be created as a result. And they rarely mention the significant changes in lifestyle and consumption that will be needed to bring carbon emissions down to a safe level. The notion that climate protection can be achieved solely through technological advances, and without any slowdown in economic growth, is a form of denial unique to liberals.

Science is unanimous on the urgency of the climate problem. Baby steps are not enough, especially when none of the Republican candidates have yet accepted that humans are the main driver of climate change, or formulated a solution. Yes, Kasich sounds more rational on climate than Trump or Cruz do, just as proponents of “intelligent design” sound more rational than creationists who believe the Earth was created only 6,000 years ago, but they are all deniers of well-established science.

If climate change were the only issue in this election, none of the Republicans still in the race would be fit for office. Kasich may seem like the adult in the room, but only because the media are desperate for an alternative to the insanity of Trump and Cruz, and to the indecisiveness of Rubio.

Surely America deserves something better than a sane, self-assured denier when it comes to an issue that threatens everyone on Earth, as well as future generations. We don’t need a president who is still in the process of evolving from one unscientific belief to another. We need someone who understands and accepts science, and who recognizes that coping with the worsening climate crisis requires major shifts in how we produce and use energy. The country needs a president ready to lead a revolution, not a painfully slow evolution.