Ever since beating former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004, South Dakota's John Thune has become one of the Senate's more powerful Republicans. He's on VP shortlists. He's so popular in-state, no one challenged him for reelection in 2010. Thune is also a member and former chair of the Republican Study Committee. He's now been reelected the Republican Conference Chairman, which makes him the third ranking member in the upcoming Republican controlled Senate.
The Senator has some serious pull in Washington D.C and with the GOP.
And on Sunday he made news by ever so slightly edging away from the climate change denier caucus dominating his party and toward scientific sanity. Senator Thune appeared on Fox News Sunday where host Chris Wallace asked:
Wallace: When 97 percent of scientific papers say that human activity does add to climate change - without getting into the details - don't we have to do something?
Thune: Well climate change is occurring, its always occurring Chris, there's a number of factors that contribute to that, including human activity.
The Washington Post's Stephen Stromberg took immediate notice of Thune's inclusion of "human activity" among "number of factors." He writes:
His statement might be merely another GOP attempt to justify doing too little without seeming anti-science.
Salon's Joanna Rothkopf also wrote:
...we have reached a disappointing level of political discourse where even the most fleeting acceptance of scientific fact is worth noting.
I'll admit that Senator Thune's climate change stance is not nearly as radical as some of his colleagues. At least he acknowledges the climate is changing, and that there is a human role. That's heartening for a powerful U.S Senator who also doesn't believe in evolution.
But it's a total copout. Senator Thune is engaging in an obfuscation game. When he says "number of factors" he's intentionally clouding the debate for his conservative base. He does this while bolstering his leadership status by appearing reasonable by acknowledging human causes.
Senator Thune hasn't always been this tepid on science. In 2014, 97 percent of South Dakota's planted corn was genetically modified. Accordingly, the Senator does not think there is any merit in the various efforts to label food with GMO ingredients. To back this assertion, he told South Dakota reporter Denise Ross in July:
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said genetically modified crops have been proven safe and are needed to feed a growing global population.
"I'm really concerned about this overreaction people are having to genetically modified crops. This is the way we are going to feed the world," Thune said. "Technology has given us some great solutions. Clearly these are safe. There's no question about those issues."
They are safe to eat, because science tells us so. "There is no question." And I agree.
Among scientists there's no debate about humanity's actions as central to climate change's cause, just as there is no debate - as the Senator asserts - about the safety of consuming GMO crops.
If Senator Thune actually believed what scientists and the U.S. military tells us about our dire climate future, he would be compelled to act immediately and with force. He'd have to stop pushing for the Keystone XL pipeline and questioning the economic impact of climate change solutions.
Long-time South Dakota political blogger Cory Heidelberger thinks Thune's slow climate science walk signals a possible presidential run in 2016. He may be right. Though I don't know if Senator Thune's statements will play well in a GOP primary crowd that booed a gay soldier the last time around.
I do know that what South Dakota farmers urgently need now from Senator Thune is leadership that drives immediate action on mitigating and adapting to a volatile climate, not this incremental, cynically motivated, glacial-pace acceptance.
Continued inaction puts a sector that generates $25.6 billion of economic activity a year for South Dakota at severe risk.