At the start of this year on this site, we urged the media and politicians to debate climate solutions, not the settled science of climate change. The good news is that, more than ever before, candidates are being forced to explain their positions on climate change and what they plan to do about it.
In key Senate races around the country, candidates have gotten into heated exchanges about the role of the Environmental Protection Agency and its proposal to reduce the carbon pollution that is responsible for climate change. This heightened interest in climate change should come as no surprise as its impacts become more evident and more dangerous every year.
Candidates who have previously denied the science of man-made climate change are in a far more difficult spot than in the past. When pressed by the media or their opponents, many of these deniers will now reluctantly waltz around their denial, acknowledging that humans contribute, in some form or fashion, to climate change. But they remain unable or unwilling to recognize the overwhelming scientific evidence that human activities are far and away the primary cause of climate change, because that would obligate them to support some form of action to address it.
Consider the moves of these high profile Senate candidates that the League of Conservation Voters is closely following:
- Up until recently, Rep. Cory Gardner's (R-CO) stance on climate change consisted of denying that the human contribution to climate change is as extensive as documented "in the news" and claiming that "recent reports" show that climate change is mostly not caused by human activities. However, when pressed for an explanation of his views on climate science during an October 6 Senate debate, Gardner markedly changed his tone, stating: "There is no doubt that pollution contributes to the climate changing around us." Then, at a debate the very next day, and again on the 15th, Gardner instinctively turned back to his climate denial catchphrase: "I believe the climate is changing. I disagree to the extent that it's been in the news that man has caused it."
- Michigan Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land has perhaps received the most scrutiny over her views on climate science of anyone running this year, and as a result she's undergone a gradual metamorphosis on the issue. In May, Land declared that she disagreed with her opponent Gary Peters "on the extent of the effect of human behavior on our climate." After those remarks received criticism, Land's spokeswoman quickly back-stepped, acknowledging that "some" of changes to the climate "could be" caused by humans. Days later, Land herself was stressing that "climate change is absolutely a reality," without getting into the details of whether it is man-made. More recently, Land inched slightly closer to accepting the science by recognizing that "humans do affect the climate."
- Then there's ex-Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, who has done an about-face on climate science not once, but twice. According to a 2009 Boston Globe report, in a conversation about climate change with a voter, Brown "did not reject the fraud theory." Brown appeared to set the record straight in 2012, when he told the Globe that "man plays a role" in climate change. But while Brown's home state has now changed, his pattern of making confusing climate comments apparently has not. At a New Hampshire Republican primary debate in late August, he responded with a hesitating "uh, no" when asked if he believed that man-made climate change was "scientifically proven." Soon thereafter, Brown was back to saying that climate change is "a combination of manmade and natural [causes]."
- For her part, Iowa Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst has rotated between outright climate science denial and simply claiming ignorance. In June, she said, "I don't know that climate change is mainly due to humans." In September, it was "I can't say one way or another" whether climate change is man-made. But Ernst displayed no such hesitation in her answer to the Des Moines Register candidate questionnaire, where she definitively stated that global temperature shifts are "a result of long-term cyclical patterns rather than the result of man-made activities."
- Finally, there's North Carolina Senate candidate Thom Tillis, who flatly denied climate science during the Republican primary debate and has yet to show any semblance of scientific literacy on the issue. According to Tillis, climate change is "false science" that liberals are "trying to use it as a Trojan horse for their energy policy."
While each of these candidates has danced to a slightly different tune on the science of climate change, they all follow the same move when it comes to opposing any action to address the issue. This is where their dancing feet start to step on each other. The only things voters know about these candidates is that they are reluctant to accept settled science and unwilling to consider smart policy. To continue to claim that climate change is a hoax would get them labeled as crazy, but to fully accept climate science requires them to favor a solution to this threat, which would make them pariahs to the Koch brothers and other polluters who are spending millions of dollars attacking their opponents.
These candidates' climate science denial becomes a reflection of a disturbing character trait - their unwillingness to address a growing threat to Americans because the possible solutions may affect their benefactors' profits. This crop of candidates ignores increasingly urgent warnings from NASA, the National Academy of Sciences, and nearly all other scientific bodies, simply to appease their special interest supporters. Their dance is choreographed.