Will GOP put climate science back on trial?
Senate Republicans appear likely to use their majority status in the next Congress to attack the argument behind climate change in an attempt to undercut environmental policies.
But some GOP strategists wonder whether such an offensive might backfire.
Questioning — and attempting to delegitimize — climate scientists has been an oft-used tactic of Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is poised to reprise his role as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
It was a hallmark of his 2003 to 2007 chairmanship of the panel — and the following six years, when he was its ranking member.
As one of the most outspoken skeptics of the scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions from humans cause climate change, Inhofe is still a frequent critic of climate scientists.
“A lot of us, way back in 2001, in that timeframe, they thought there was actually some truth to the global warming thing, and a lot of people are trying to resurrect that now,” Inhofe said on the Senate floor Wednesday in a speech about President Obama’s deal with China to limit greenhouse gases in both countries.
Inhofe dove deeper into his scientific arguments in July, while Senate Democrats took to the floor for hours to call for legislative action to mitigate climate change.
“While some Democrats may be convinced that global warming is continuing to occur, the scientific record does not agree,” he said.
“In fact, for the past 15 years, temperatures have not increased,” he continued.
As many Republicans have declared this year that “I am not a scientist” to explain why they are skeptical of climate change conclusions, Inhofe has only gotten louder in his declarations that the people who are scientists are wrong.
And while environmentalists and Democrats often say 97 percent of climate scientists agree that humans are causing the climate to change, Inhofe and many other Republicans say otherwise and highlight the dissenters.
Tony Leiserowitz, director of Yale University’s Project on Climate Change Communication, said that skepticism of science is likely to continue as an argument in the GOP-led Senate, especially with Inhofe controlling the environmental agenda.
“He has clearly, very publicly positioned himself as saying that it’s the greatest hoax in American history,” Leiserowitz said. “I doubt anything has happened to convince him otherwise.”
Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.), a member of the House Science Committee, is looking forward to Inhofe’s chairmanship and Republican control of the Senate.
The House Science Committee, under leadership of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), has held multiple hearing to promote climate change skepticism and undermine scientists who disagree with them.
For example, Smith called a hearing in May to question the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has called in recent reports for dramatic measures to reduce carbon emissions quickly. Three of the four witnesses argued that the report had major flaws.
“Right now in the country, in the media particularly and on Capitol Hill, it’s been a one-sided discussion,” Bucshon said. “I’m hopeful that we’ll have a balanced discussion about the facts, and let’s determine what the facts are.”
Bucshon doubts that humans play much of a role in the climate, and he believes there are many scientists who agree with him.
“There’s thousands of scientists that have a different view. We should be hearing everybody’s voice on both sides,” he said.
But focusing too much on attacking climate change could end up hurting Republicans, a GOP strategist said.
Ford O’Connell, who advised Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on his 2008 presidential bid, said that it’d be difficult for Republicans to win arguments on climate change by only criticizing science.
“Inhofe has to really walk a tight-rope here, in the sense that if he can frame this as about the need for American energy security and a war on jobs, he could be successful,” O’Connell said. “But if he uses this pedestal to throw out heaps of red meat, it could backfire.”
Climate change repeatedly ranks low in Americans’ top concerns in major surveys. But O’Connell fears that if Republicans stray from economic and energy security arguments, it could highlight the issue more and open the door to criticisms that they do not care about the environment.
“When you start talking about the need for energy security, the instability around the world and the need for jobs, [Inhofe]’s got a winner,” O’Connell said. “But he’s got to keep the car between these two lines.”
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