2012 GOP Candidates Demonstrate Dramatic Political Shift on Climate

Republican candidates for the 2012 presidential nomination overwhelmingly agree in rejecting evidence that Earth is warming and that humans are substantially responsible. But just three years ago, both major party presidential candidates were pledging to cut greenhouse emissions. What’s changed?

Americans voting in November 2008 chose between two presidential candidates who had each pledged to take significant action on climate change.

“We stand warned by serious and credible scientists across the world,” Republican nominee John McCain said on the campaign trail in Oregon. “Time is short and the dangers are great.”

McCain proposed cutting greenhouse emissions by 60 percent by 2050. Then-candidate Barack Obama said he supported cuts of 80 percent.

Fast-forward three years, and scientists remain convinced that Earth is warming and that people are substantially responsible.

But the political landscape has shifted dramatically. All the Republican presidential candidates now either oppose greenhouse regulations or outright deny that climate change is occurring.

Take Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who has described global warming as “voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax” and carbon dioxide as “a natural byproduct of nature.”

Business executive Herman Cain has said the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative should instead be called the “Regional Greenhouse Gas Rip-off.” Texas Congressman Ron Paul has said global warming is a hoax; former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has called it “a beautifully concocted scheme.”

There’s also Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has claimed that “there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.”

Youtube video no longer available to embed. View it at Perry suggests global warming is a hoax

In 2008, former House Speaker and now candidate Newt Gingrich appeared in an advertisement with then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi on behalf of Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection. “Our country must take action to address climate change,” he said in the ad.

But in the heat of the presidential campaign, Gingrich has said he regrets participating in the ad and that his appearance had been “misconstrued.”

In the GOP field, former Ambassador to China and Utah Governor Jon Huntsman stands virtually alone in his clear support for the evidence on climate change, which he expressed via Twitter.

That tweet prompted a swipe from GOP veteran Pat Buchanan, speaking on MSNBC: “If he’s running for the Republican nomination, he is crazy,” Buchanan said.

But even Huntsman doesn’t support legislation to address emissions. He told Time in May that “this isn’t the moment” to take action on climate change.

Mitt Romney’s Cooling Climate Views

The changed political prospects for climate change are most obvious in former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s shifting position on the issue. When Romney was governor, his administration capped emissions from coal-fired power plants. The limits, Romney said in a December 2005 press release, would provide “real and immediate progress in the battle to improve our environment.”

The Romney administration also helped negotiate a regional cap-and-trade initiative, although the governor ultimately backed out of the deal.

As recently as June 3, 2011, Romney offered support for the scientific consensus on climate change.

“I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer. And number two, I believe that humans contribute to that,” he said in Manchester, New Hampshire. “I think it’s important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may well be significant contributors to the climate change and global warming that you’re seeing.”

Then conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh seized on Romney’s comments. “Bye bye, nomination. Another one down,” Limbaugh said.

By August, Romney seemed to soften his stance.

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

In early September, Romney released his jobs plan, in which he pledged to move to amend the Clean Air Act so that carbon dioxide could not be regulated as a pollutant.

That didn’t stop Rick Perry from using Romney’s climate-change record as attack fodder.

“Massachusetts was one of the first states to implement its own cap-and-trade program, which included limits on carbon emissions from power plants,” Perry said in a Georgia speech that likened Romney to President Obama. The Perry campaign released a video describing Romney and Obama as “carbon copies.”

The Romney campaign replied with its own climate-tinged swipe: “Rick Perry supported Al Gore for president,” spokeswoman Andrea Saul told Politico. “Instead of distorting Mitt Romney’s record, Mr. Perry should explain why he lined up behind Al Gore’s radical environmental agenda.”

Then, speaking in Pennsylvania in late October, Romney reversed his position on climate change.

“My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet,” he said.

Four Reasons The Debate Has Changed

What’s changed since 2008? Drexel University’s Robert Brulle, professor of sociology and environmental science, says four factors help explain climate change’s political problems, even within the Obama camp. The administration is “not really talking much about climate change at all, either,” he said. “You have the Democrats sort of just getting quieter and quieter, and the Republicans getting louder and louder in denial.”

First, in the summer of 2008 — when the last presidential campaign was in high gear — unemployment was low. The opposite is true today. ”Climate change becomes a peripheral issue when unemployment is so high,” Brulle said in a recent interview.

The second factor: the rise of the Tea Party.

In 2008, the Tea Party did not exist. By 2010, it was an organized political force.

According to a poll conducted in April and May of this year, led by Yale Forum publisher Anthony Leiserowitz, 53 percent of Republicans who do not identify with the Tea Party say that global warming is happening. In contrast, among Tea Party members — who make up 12 percent of the American public — only 34 percent say that global warming is occurring.

“All the Republican candidates have to go through the gauntlet of the Republican primary, which is where the Tea Party is going to have the most influence,” Brulle said. The result is that candidates are taking positions to appeal to their political base in the upcoming primaries.

Dwindling news coverage is also a factor in this year’s climate politics. Media coverage and public concern about climate change increased dramatically in 2006 and 2007, during the period when Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” was released, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its Fourth Assessment Report, and Gore and the IPCC won the Nobel Peace Prize.

But by 2010, coverage had returned to 2004 levels, Brulle said: “It’s just not a major item of discussion.”

Finally, the movement to oppose action on climate change has grown much stronger since 2008, Brulle said. In the wake of hacked e-mail controversies, for example, climate “skeptics” feel free to claim publicly, though falsely, that climate scientists faked their data.

During the same time period, the energy industry invested millions of dollars in lobbying, according to an analysis by the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund.

“Five hundred million dollars has been spent since the last race to discredit climate change,” said Shawn Lawrence Otto, author of “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the assault on science in America.” The GOP candidates’ views, Otto said, represent “the triumph of ideology over knowledge.”

Speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in September, former President Bill Clinton also criticized the GOP candidates for denying climate change. “We look like a joke,” he said. “You can’t win the nomination of one of the major parties in our country if you admit that the scientists are right.”

‘Storify’ as a Reporting Tool

To report this story, we used a tool called Storify to assemble stories from social media messages, such as Flickr photos, YouTube videos, Twitter messages, and public Facebook status updates. A journalist or other communicator can use the tool to search for messages related to a news story and then organize those messages into a story while adding context through explanatory text. Try Storify for yourself here, and go here to see how Sara Peach’s story appears on the Storify platform.

Sara Peach

Sara Peach, an environmental journalist, teaches environmental journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: sara@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @sarapeach)
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18 Responses to 2012 GOP Candidates Demonstrate Dramatic Political Shift on Climate

  1. JeffN says:

    “We look like a joke,” he said. “You can’t win the nomination of one of the major parties in our country if you admit that the scientists are right.”

    Was Bill Clinton talking about the anti-nuke Democrats or the anti-windmill Republicans? Why do you think there is a difference to anyone other than partisan activists?
    You forgot item number 5- the only “movement-approved action” on global warming allowed is a pledge to increase the cost of energy (ie everything) via a regressive price hike via cap-n-trade or a regressive carbon tax. Absolutely nobody on either side of the aisle would even think of a forced priced hike on everything (especially one without a benefit) during a recession. Nobody.
    But by all means, you were saying “Republican, Republican, Republican…” I believe.

  2. Dan Rogers says:

    The Republican contenders for their party’s nomination do NOT unanimously agree that the earth’s climate is themodynamically stable — i.e. neither warming nor cooling. Every intelligent observer knows that the climate is slowly warming up at the present time. We have reliable temperature records that show it is happening. What those contenders, to a man (and a woman), DO believe is that the warming taking place is not being caused by excessive carbon dioxide being introduced into the atmosphere by human activities. Equating global warming with anthropogenic global warming is confusing, deceptive and just plain wrong. There’s GW, and then there’s AGW, and they aren’t the same thing.

    • Sara Peach says:

      Dan, can you point to public statements by the candidates in which they make this distinction? I see it going on in Romney’s comments, but not so much in the others.

      • Dan Rogers says:

        No, I cannot point to any specific statement by any Republican hopeful in which he or she distinguishes between GW (happening) and AGW (not happening). I expect that Ron Paul would make the distinction, since he seems to be the most intelligent of that bunch, but I rarely pay much attention to what those people say anymore.

        I am a Democrat who does not admire Al Gore and who believes the AGW-carbon dioxide story is a fairy tale concocted by Mr. Gore and the nuclear power people to scare us into using more of their product. I am not afraid of nuclear power, and I predict that we will use much more of it before we perfect solar generation and long distance power distribution without significant loss of voltage, but this power progress should evolve without the use of fantastical carbophobia.

      • Leonard Weinstein says:

        You obviously do not read extended interview results on the Republican candidates. They nearly all say there has been warming in recent times, it has leveled off and possibly may go down, and there is no supportable evidence that it is anything other than mostly natural variation. These are in fact all supportable comments, and I would be very glad to show you this.

        • Sara Peach says:

          I’m genuinely curious about what the GOP candidates have to say, so please point me to where they “nearly all” are saying publicly that “there has been warming in recent times, it has leveled off and possibly may go down.”

          Second, every U.S. scientific organization with expertise on this subject has issued a statement in line with the consensus: the planet is warming, and people are substantially responsible.

  3. Great analysis. Thanks.

    What about European and English conservatives? PM Margaret Thatcher really launched England into some of the best climate studies and adaptation of any nation.

    My understanding is that foreign conservatives are far more understanding about AGW – suggesting that this is a particular to American culture.

    • Sara Peach says:

      Thanks for your comment. It’s worth taking a look at what was going on in American politics around Thatcher’s time. George H.W. Bush’s climate record was mixed, but he did enact the first cap-and-trade program (for acid rain), and he signed the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change treaty. So while I’m sure that American culture plays a role, there are likely other factors as well.

      • Dan Rogers says:

        That cap and trade program for acid rain has produced nothing that I am aware of. Is anyone else aware of any “success” achieved by that program? I retired quite a few years back, but I keep an eye out for developments in the acid rain situation.

  4. Alec Rawls says:

    [Editor's Note: This comment was edited prior to posting to delete an unjustified and improper personal accusation against several individuals named by the writer.]

    “Four Reasons The Debate Has Changed,” and none of them have to do with the grand natural experiment currently being hosted by our sun. Is Sara Peach even aware that the leading competing theory is that 20th century warming was primarily caused, not by increased CO2, but by the 80 year grand maximum of solar-magnetic activity that ended in 2003?

    Now that the sun has gone quiet, the solar theory predicts a flattening and then a fall off in temperature, while the CO2 theory predicts ever faster warming. Does Ms. Peach know which prediction is more in line with the actual 21st century temperature record?

    She apparently simply assumes that the facts are too difficult for ordinary people to examine for themselves. On the contrary, they are perfectly simple to check. Just Google “HadCRUT3.”

    The sun’s shift from active to quiet is well on the way to demonstrating the CO2 theory wrong, AND to demonstrating that numerous “environmental journalists” never even TRY to look at the facts for themselves. They just pass on what the scientists on one side of the climate debate are saying.

    • Sara Peach says:

      The basic physical principles of the greenhouse effect are well understood. Scientists know that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat, that CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing, and that fossil fuels are the primary source of the added CO2. Many factors, including solar activity, play a role in climate. But recent warming can’t be explained without accounting for human activity.

      In addition, NASA data shows that the world’s warmest years have occurred since 2003. The years 2010 and 2005 are tied for hottest ever.

      • Leonard Weinstein says:

        I am a well established scientist that has closely followed the debate. I started out accepting the human cause of global warming, but after very deep analysis of the papers, concluded that a big mistake had been made. There are about as many scientists that follow the issue closely that are skeptics of the human cause being the dominate factor in the warming period, and the warming has stopped. Clearly human activity has had some effect, but not dominate, or not heading for a problem, and CO2 is a small part of the small human effect. If you did an actual good job of looking at the entire argument, you would likely change your position, but you appear to be like many that take a one sided view, and don’t actually bother to really study the issue with an open mind. It might interest you to know that Hansen’s previous boss at NASA, and even the former NASA administrator are skeptics. So is Buzz Aldrin, and Harrison Schmitt. A recent study found the average skeptic was more knowledgeable on this issue than supporters of the more extreme position.

      • Dan Rogers says:

        Sara, you have asserted a number of facts that I don’t think are beyond question.

        “Scientists know that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat, that CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing, and that fossil fuels are the primary source of the added CO2.”

        The first statement is true, but no one really has figured out how much heat is trapped by CO2.

        It is true that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere at the Mauna Loa observatory is slowly increasing, but the increase from year to year is very small, and the total amount of CO2 only increases from one minuscule amount to another, slightly higher, minuscule amount. Is the Mauna Loa observatory the only place where measurements are made? Is the Keeling Curve to be regarded as the last and only word on CO2 quantity?

        We do not know for a fact that fossil fuel combustion accounts for much or all of the increased CO2 measured at Mauna Loa. Rising temperatures, for example, tend to increase carbon metabolism all over the world, and that might be the source of the increased CO2. Let’s not confuse cause and effect.

        • Sara Peach says:

          As I said to Leonard, every U.S. scientific organization with expertise on this subject has issued a statement in line with the consensus: the planet is warming, and people are substantially responsible. Until that changes, the Yale Forum will continue to report that human-caused climate change is occurring.

          I will address your last point. You’re right that rising temperatures can unleash carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. For example, melting permafrost releases carbon dioxide. That is a cause for worry, because human-caused warming could lead to additional warming from permafrost melting.

          However, scientists do know that fossil fuel combustion is increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere, because different types of carbon have slightly different chemical properties. The chemical properties of the carbon that’s building up in the atmosphere match the signature of fossil fuels. It’s us.

          For more on this, see this posting: http://www.skepticalscience.com/its-not-us.htm

  5. Bud Ward says:

    Dan Rogers: Let me elaborate briefly on Sara’s response. Your comment that no one knows just how much heat is trapped by CO2 does not challenge her point that fossil fuels “are the primary source of the added CO2.” As she pointed out, the science is squarely behind her on that one, and until the nation’s and world’s leading scientific organizations — N.A.S., AAAS, AGU, AMS, Royal Society, AMS and many more — change their tune, we’re not gonna change ours.

    Your question about the acid rain emissions trading experience? I too have closely watched that over the years, ever since I was first reporting on it regularly when it was being considered by the Congress. Experiences under that program clearly rank (along with eliminating lead from gasoline) as one of the greatest accomplishments under the Clean Air Act. Early forecasts of excessive costs and regulatory burdens have been proven unwarranted. Utilities’ relative silence on the program speaks to the success they have had in carrying it out. (Would that ALL our environmental regulatory programs could be so successful and well-accepted.) That’s not to say, by the way, that a cap and trade for CO2 and carried out internationally would necessarily be a slam dunk the way it’s been for acid rain at the domestic level — an apples and oranges comparison.

    Leonard Weinstein: Can’t accept your “no supportable evidence…re natural variability” point, for reasons mentioned above re peer-reviewed science. Would welcome your submitting a brief comment pointing to those peer-reviewed reports supporting your view on this, as you’ve offered.

    “About as many scientists…warming has stopped” ? Really? I don’t know that that’s anywhere near the case, certainly not when it comes to the climate- relevant sciences and their professional societies. Leveled-off? Paused? Maybe, but that would only be consistent with evidence that climate change impacts are not and will not be linear, that there inevitably will be ups and downs. A big difference.

    Also, of what relevance if Hansen’s previous bosses did or did not, do or do not, support his views? (Even less so what Aldrin and/or Schmidt have to say on the issue.) More relevant is what the leading science organizations and the leading relevant scientists say based on their views of the evidence. And they don’t see it the way you characterize Aldrin and Schmidt as seeing things.

    Finally, I think you mischaracterize the research on climate skeptics being “more knowledgeable.” (Hard to know when you make that relative to “supporters of the more extreme position,” whatever that means.) Are many “skeptics’ more knowledgeable than person-on-the-street opinion poll respondents? Very likely, but more informed and evidence-based than those of the National Academy, etc? Show me the proof on that one.

    Thanks to each of you for your comments.

  6. One startling aspect of the political u-turn on climate change in the US is its place in a broad cultural vista of enraged cynicism about scientific expertise in general and a credulous willingness to adopt whatever is the opposite of science.

    Of course there is debate and ongoing refinement of climate science and not every finding or projection from 5 or 10 years ago has stood the test of time. That’s inherent in the canons of scientific method. But how this process has been perverted into an attack on the legitimacy of climate science and scientists (Michael Mann) is deeply disturbing.

  7. Chantel Klouda says:

    Great information :)

  8. Kathryn says:

    Let’s take the climate change issue out for a brief moment and just talk about the air we breathe. Has increased CO2 from car emissions been shown to have adverse health effects on humans? has an increase in Ozone proven to have adverse effects on humans? Has NOx been proven to have adverse health effects on humans? Yes to all of the above. If you don’t believe in anthropogenic influence on climate change, you can;t deny that WE put a LOT of crap in our air. If not for climate change, I would vote on that alone. I will not vote in favor of a candidate that wants to streamline the regulation on CO2 and put more unhealthy gasses into the air for the sake of letting the market decide. Values.