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Republican Party’s Moment of Truth on Science

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After Wednesday night’s Republican presidential candidates’ debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, the issue of where the party stands on the issue of respect for science and taking a fact-based approach to public policy-making is squarely on the table.

Photo: Associated Press/Jae C. Hong

Near the end of the debate (watch science-related clips here), co-moderator John Harris of Politico asked Governor Rick Perry to name the scientists he relies on as credible sources of information in his rejection of the broad scientific consensus that humans are contributing to global warming. Perry didn’t come up with any names, but doubled down on his earlier comments on the campaign trail:

“The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at — at — at jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet, to me, is just — is nonsense. I mean, it — I mean — and I tell somebody, I said, just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact, Galileo got outvoted for a spell.”

Just before Perry’s comments, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman had warned of the danger to the Republican Party if it is perceived as being anti-science:

“When you make comments that fly in the face of 98 out of 100 climate scientists, to call into question the science of evolution, all I am saying is that in order for the Republican Party to win, we can’t run from science,” he said. “By making comments that basically don’t reflect the reality of the situation, we turn people off.”

The third governor in the race, Mitt Romney, didn’t address the climate science issue in this week’s debate, but at a June 3rd town hall meeting in New Hampshire, he said this:

“I believe the world is getting warmer, and I believe that humans have contributed to that. It’s important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may be significant contributors.”

Romney’s remarks generated a strong reaction from talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who said they meant “Bye Bye nomination.”

When Romney was again asked about climate science at another New Hampshire event on August 24th, he was more equivocal:

“Do I think the world’s getting hotter? Yeah, I don’t know that but I think that it is. I don’t know if it’s mostly caused by humans. What I’m not willing to do is spend trillions of dollars on something I don’t know the answer to.”

For the record, the nation’s premiere scientific body, the National Academy of Sciences, made clear in its 2010 report, Advancing the Science of Climate Change, how robust the science is on this issue:

“Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small. Such conclusions and theories are then regarded as settled facts. This is the case for the conclusions that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.”

The stance of Perry and other candidates who dismiss the mainstream science on climate, evolution, and other issues is clearly popular among Tea Party activists and climate denialists. But it’s not likely to sit so well with other Republicans, including many evangelical Christians, hunters and fishers, business leaders, and others, who acknowledge the mounting impacts and costs of human-induced climate change.

This is illustrated by a fascinating new report released earlier this week by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, based upon a recent national survey of the American public: “Politics and Global Warming: Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and the Tea Party.” The report reaffirms the partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans on the reality of, and appropriate policy responses to, the threat of climate change; but it also documents a gap between Republicans as a whole and those Americans who consider themselves members of the Tea Party. For example, the report finds that “Majorities of Democrats (78%), Independents (71%) and Republicans (53%) believe that global warming is happening. By contrast, only 34 percent of Tea Party members believe global warming is happening, while 53 percent say it is not happening.”

Of course, divisions among Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter) on climate change and other science-based issues isn’t a new phenomenon. I was in Washington (though not yet at UCS) during the Reagan years, when former Republican Senators Robert Stafford (VT) and John Chafee (RI) succeeded in blocking that administration’s efforts to weaken the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. And former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert led other moderate House Republicans in numerous battles on environmental and energy issues during his years in Congress with both Republican House leaders and the Bush administration.

But this fight over science among the presidential contenders seems even more fundamental to me. History has demonstrated that to be sustainable over the long haul, public policy on most major issues – not just climate change – needs to have bipartisan support. Given that fact, the consequences of this debate go far beyond who wins the Republican presidential nomination next year. For if one of America’s two major political parties starts to consistently ignore robust scientific findings and their implications for public policy, the negative impacts on our future health, prosperity, and well-being could be very large indeed.

Posted in: Global Warming, Scientific Integrity

About the author: Alden Meyer has more than 30 years of experience on energy and climate policy. He is internationally recognized expert on U.S. and international climate policy. He also works extensively on renewable energy and electricity policy at the federal and state level. See Alden's full bio.

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