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GOP Not Listening to Its Own Scientists on Climate Change

GOP scientists say their attempts to talk about climate dangers with their party's politicians and their aides have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Feb 22, 2012
Rick Santorum speaking to the Republican Leadership Conference

A number of prominent U.S. climate scientists who identify themselves as Republican say their attempts in recent years to educate the GOP leadership on the scientific evidence of man-made climate change have been futile. Now, many have given up trying and the few who continue notice very little change after speaking with politicians and their aides.

"No GOP candidates or policymakers want to touch the issue, and those of us trying to educate them are left frustrated," Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a registered Republican, told InsideClimate News. "Climate change has become a third rail in politics."

Heading into the 2008 presidential election, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican nominee, warned about the dangers of global warming. He was one of a group of moderate Republicans who used to be leading climate action advocates, acknowledging the scientific consensus on climate change and the need for federal policies to address it.

But with the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2009, skepticism or even flat-out denial of global warming has become part of the party's core message. And no candidate now vying for the GOP nomination can admit to the scientific consensus, much less advocate for measures to curb climate-altering emissions, no matter what positions they might have taken in the past.

In fact, past support of policies to regulate carbon dioxide, a global warming gas, is being used to question the fitness of candidates to become the party's nominee. During a speech this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Rick Santorum tore into his GOP presidential rival, former Gov. of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, for buying into man-made warming and supporting the nation's first cap-and-trade program known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Romney later opposed the scheme but Massachusetts did participate, and it has benefited from the nearly $500 million in economic activity the program has brought to the state.

A Tea Party favorite, Santorum has called global warming "a facade," "a hoax" and an example of the "politicization of science." Both Romney and Newt Gingrich, another candidate for the party's nomination, have stepped away from their previous stances that humans are contributing to global warming in order to convince restive voters and donors that they are conservative enough to be the party's luminary.

The GOP's hardening stance in favor of climate skepticism, however, is not reflected among the country's leading scientists, no matter the party. Roughly 98 percent of U.S. climate researchers are convinced that rising emissions from human activities is hastening climate change, according to a 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

While it's rare for scientists to disclose their political affiliations, InsideClimate News tracked down a handful of leading climate and environmental scientists who have done so and are registered Republican or have a majority of their values in line with the party. All accept the consensus that Earth is warming mainly from the buildup of greenhouse gases produced from the burning of fossil fuels. And all say their attempts to talk with GOP politicians and their aides about climate dangers have largely fallen on deaf ears. Calls and emails to the campaigns of Santorum, Romney and Gingrich for comment were not returned.

Five Scientists Share Their Stories

Behind the scenes, conservative scientists nationwide have attempted to approach presidential hopefuls and their aides, members of Congress and in some instances state politicians in order to educate them on the growing body of climate research.

Emanuel, the MIT scientist who directs the university's atmosphere, oceans and climate program and has authored dozens of influential papers, said he has been trying to talk with Republican presidential candidates in person for several months. He is skeptical that his efforts have had much of an effect.

In late January, Emanuel was flown to South Carolina by the Christian Coalition of America, a religious advocacy group that has backed federal climate legislation, to talk to presidential candidates about climate change for one of their regular meetings. While there, alongside two naval admirals and the president of Tennessee-based Signal Energy, a wind, solar and biomass energy company, Emanuel told Gingrich and one of Santorum's top aides of the urgent need to advance America's response to dangerous climate change.  

"As you would expect they listened politely, but it is very hard to know whether that had any effect at all," Emanuel said. "But you have to try all the doors and just keep working at it, I guess."

Last November he spoke at a small conference of the New Hampshire Republicans for Climate. Despite being sent invitations—and being in the state at the time of the meeting— neither Romney nor Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who withdrew from the race in January, showed up at the conference. The brush-off, Emanuel said, was "disappointing."

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