Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Republican Presidential Candidates: The Climate May Be Changing, But That Doesn’t Mean We Should Stop Burning Fossil Fuels

By Amelia Schlusser, Staff Attorney

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently reported that average atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm) for the entire month of March. Pieter Tans, lead scientist for NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network, explained that this is a significant milestone, because it marks the first time that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have caused global CO2 concentrations to rise by more than 120 ppm over pre-industrial levels.

Rising CO2 concentrations are having a significant impact on the global climate. A new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that over the past ten years, global sea levels rose faster than previous research had indicated. The ice sheet in West Antarctica is melting, and new research indicates that the ice sheets in East Antarctica are beginning to melt as well. These two ice sheets have the potential to cause global sea levels to rise by more than 20 feet, and thanks to the effects of gravity, the United States could experience a 25% greater rise in sea levels. The impacts of climate change are being felt on a more localized level as well. For example, California is suffering from crippling and historic drought, and the U.S. Forest Service recently found that approximately 12 million forest trees have died in that state over the last year.

The so-called “debate” over climate change is grounded in ideological convictions rather than scientific evidence. The science is overwhelmingly conclusive—the climate is changing, and the last decade was the warmest on record. There is also an overwhelming consensus among the scientific community that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to the current warming trend. According to NASA, “97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.” Conservative politicians, however, have been slow to accept the conclusions from the scientific community. Earlier this year, the U.S. senate passed a measure stating that “climate change is real and is not a hoax.” However, only five Republican senators voted in favor of an amendment stating that “climate change is real (and) human activity significantly contributes to climate change.”

With the Environmental Protection Agency poised to finalize the Clean Power Plan this summer (and thus regulate CO2 emissions from existing power plants), it seems inevitable that climate change will be a prominent issue in the 2016 presidential debate. Hillary Clinton recently clarified that she believes climate change is a real threat and the government should do “whatever it takes” to convince Americans that it’s in their best interest to take action to reduce emissions.

Republican presidential contenders, however, have persisted in denying that human activity is contributing to climate change. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has not officially announced his candidacy, recently made headlines by announcing that he believes in human-driven climate change. Other prominent GOP candidates have adopted more skeptical positions. The following discussion summarizes the climate change positions of the current contenders for the GOP presidential nomination.

Republican Presidential Candidates: A Turning Point for Climate Change Acceptance?

According to ClimateWire, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie acknowledged that he believes climate change is real and caused by human activities. Christie, who has not officially announced his candidacy, called for the nation’s leaders to support “strong solutions to reduce carbon pollution.” However, Gov. Christie also withdrew New Jersey from the Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in 2012, describing the plan as “completely useless.”

In January, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee expressed his opinion that Islamic extremism poses a greater risk to the United States than climate change. However, according to Greenwire, Huckabee recently voiced his support for renewable energy, and stated that Americans “shouldn’t demonize renewable fuels.” Nevertheless, Huckabee’s energy plan also calls for the United States to lift prohibitions on crude oil and natural gas exports and eliminate regulations restricting oil and gas exploration on federal lands. 

A few GOP candidates acknowledge that the global climate is changing, but believe that the economic costs associated with mitigation efforts would outweigh the potential climate benefits from reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is admittedly “concerned” about the changing climate, but explained that he is more concerned about “our ability to compete in an increasingly competitive world.” The potential presidential contender further argued that the United States can continue to reduce emissions by relying on natural gas. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) believes in climate change, but is skeptical that human activity is responsible for warming temperatures. In an April interview, Rubio stated, “I believe the climate is changing because there’s never been a moment where the climate is not changing.” However, the Florida senator questions whether efforts to reduce emissions would have any effect on the climate, and argues that regulations to mitigate climate change “would have a devastating impact on our economy.”

Other GOP contenders fail to view climate change as a significant threat to American citizens. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tx.)  believes that climate change is real, but he argues that the science indicates that the earth has not warmed “significantly” in the past 17 years.  He also claimed that “the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers.” Rand Paul, on the other hand, questions whether climate change is actually occurring. As Grist’s Ben Adler reported, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is a climate change denier who thinks the science surrounding climate change is inconclusive and argues that reports of sea level rise and drowning polar bears are merely “alarmist” rhetoric.

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry is perhaps the most outspoken climate change denier in the pool of potential GOP presidential contenders. Perry has consistently denied the existence of human-driven climate change, even after he issued a proclamation in 2013 stating that Texas’s “drought conditions have reached historic levels and continue to pose an imminent threat to public health, property, and the economy.” In a 2014 interview, Perry argued that labeling CO2 as an air pollutant would do a “disservice” to the country and the world, and that reducing coal consumption would “strangle our economy.”

While it’s refreshing to see some conservative lawmakers acknowledge that the global climate is indeed changing, it appears that the bulk of the GOP’s presidential contenders still place greater weight on industry interests and ideological agendas than scientific consensus. The inability to accept that human activity contributes to climate change is likely politically motivated—according to a Gallup poll, 40% of conservative Republicans believe that climate change will never have negative impacts on the planet. From a statistical standpoint, therefore, Republican candidates will have a better chance of winning their party’s nomination if they deny that human activity contributes to global warming.

However, this strategy may work against the GOP during the general election. New polling data from Yale and Utah State University found that in every single county in the United States, a majority of Americans believe that CO2 should be regulated as an air pollutant. Most Americans now acknowledge that climate change presents a serious threat, and they may be less inclined to vote for a presidential candidate that refuses to take accountability for our collective impact on the global environment.

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