Can Republican Politicians Change Their Tune on Climate and Energy?

March 6, 2015
Aaron Huertas
Former contributor

When former Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) ran for president in 2011, he flatly rejected climate science and even claimed that scientists had manipulated climate data. But last week, in response to a question about climate and energy issues at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he touted his environmental record, instead.

Rick Perry speaking at CPAC on February 27th. Source: C-Span 3

Rick Perry speaking at CPAC on February 27th. Source: C-Span 3

Perry told the audience of conservative activists that his administration had used “thoughtful incentive-based regulation” to reduce emissions, including of carbon dioxide, the chief heat-trapping gas that causes climate change. As an aside, he noted this was a good thing, “whether you believe in this whole concept of climate change or not.”

“The point is that you can have job creation and you can make your environment better,” he added.

Factcheck.org has more on the substance behind his answer, but the message is important here, too. Perry’s answer wasn’t about his personal opinions regarding climate science; it was about his record. And when politicians talk about their records, we can have real debates about climate and energy policy. When they talk about their personal beliefs regarding climate science, we often wind up having misleading debates about the validity of scientific research, instead.

Perry’s statement about whether or not his audience accepts or rejects the science bears further examination, too. About half of Republican and Republican-leaning citizens accept the evidence that the climate is changing and even more support steps to address it. While the activist audience at CPAC is more likely to reject the science than other conservative audiences, Perry didn’t reference scientific misinformation in his answer. Indeed, there was still a climate science misinformation panel at CPAC, but it was more sideshow than main event.

Some Republican politicians are cautioning their party about the risks of relying on misinformation about climate science. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) told CPAC two years ago that Republicans shouldn’t hazard being perceived as “anti-science,” a sentiment Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) echoed after a series of senate votes on climate science earlier this year.

While other presidential aspirants might be tempted to appeal to parts of their base by rejecting climate science, Gov. Perry’s CPAC speech demonstrates there’s simply no need to do so.

A letter from Marco Rubio offers more than a rejection of science, points to paths forward on policy

I’ve argued that it’s often more important to ask politicians about what they are doing on climate and energy issues rather than their personal opinions about the science. Such questions get to the actual job politicians have to do rather than the politicized rejection of established science that pervades climate discussions at the national level.

Katie Couric asking Sen. Marco Rubio about climate change around minute 27 of their full interview. (Source: Yahoo! News)

Katie Couric asking Sen. Marco Rubio about climate change around minute 27 of their full interview. (Source: Yahoo! News)

That’s why I was surprised to see a recent email a Florida researcher shared with us from Sen. Marco Rubio (R) regarding climate change. The email – which the senator’s office presumably sends to many constituents who write about climate change – repeats statements Sen. Rubio has made to the media that cast unjustified doubt on how industrial activities cause climate change. But then, Rubio’s email continues:

That does not mean we should ignore climate change.  I strongly support efforts in Florida and elsewhere to mitigate against the effects of severe weather and flooding. We should also encourage new technologies and innovations to promote energy efficiency and energy diversity.

The letter also references Rubio’s support for the America INNOVATES Act (S. 1937) and his commitment to working “with my colleagues on a bipartisan level to craft policies encouraging economic growth while protecting the environment.”

I was happy to see the latter part of this email. It would be great to see Sen. Rubio make more of those statements in public venues, too, especially as he faces more questions about his positions on climate and energy issues.

More importantly, Floridians need concrete support from their political leaders when it comes to preparing for a warming world. Cities and counties in Florida face mounting costs related to sea-level rise and the country’s flood insurance programs are under ever-increasing strain.

Sen. Rubio has the opportunity to lead on issues like this.

He should take it.