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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
(Page 3 of 3 )
Rick Santorum speaking to the Republican Leadership Conference

The same goes for Calvin DeWitt, an environmental scientist who researches climate change at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. DeWitt is a vocal evangelical Christian and although he won't affiliate himself with a single party, he does admit his religious and cultural beliefs fall in line with the majority of Republicans. He has played a significant role in nearly every intersection of climate scientists with evangelicals and politicians, including the creation of the Evangelical Climate Initiative in 2006, a group of over 300 senior evangelical leaders who believe the nation needs to address global warming.

In recent years, however, DeWitt's efforts have been thwarted, he told InsideClimate News. "The times I've tried to reach out to politicians, I have not been welcome. I think the basic problem is that it no longer pays to talk with scientists, but to those who fund you."

Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University who has been vocal about her evangelical beliefs. She gained national attention at the end of last year, when Gingrich dropped a chapter she had written on human-driven climate change for his forthcoming book on environmental issues, causing a media flurry.

Hayhoe told InsideClimate News she's more focused on communicating the science of climate change to Americans who are still skeptical than to politicians, mainly because they seem more interested. "It's not that I have made up my mind not to educate politicians on the issue, but ... they're not calling me," she said. "I'm always happy to talk to anyone who is interested—politician or not ... I rarely turn down an invite to discuss the issue."

So Who Are They Listening To?

If Republican politicians and candidates aren't talking to their party's own climate scientists, then who are they listening to?

DeWitt, the scientist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is certain that oil industry donors, which have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to fight climate legislation in recent years—and powerful conservative advocacy groups like Americans for Prosperity— are calling the shots. So much money is now required to run a campaign, DeWitt said, that politicians can't stay true to their values "unless those values are inconsequential" to politics.

Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, an organization founded and financed by the oil industry and some of the Republican party's wealthiest donors, told the National Review in December his group made "great headway" during the past three years in turning acceptance of climate science into a political liability. "The vast majority of people who are involved in the [Republican] nominating process—the conventions and the primaries—are suspect of the science. And that's our influence. Groups like Americans for Prosperity have done it," he said.

Emanuel of MIT agrees that candidates are being forced to cater to a powerful minority.

"I don't really think someone like Gingrich or Romney needs persuading on this," he said. "I believe deep down they understand we have a problem, but they don’t feel free at the moment to take a leadership position."

To support their positions, Bickmore of Brigham Young University said he believes GOP leadership is getting their climate information from the roughly two percent of American climate scientists who remain skeptical. Or worse yet, he said, they're listening to skeptics who have non-climate backgrounds and are on the payrolls of skeptic think tanks like the nonprofit Heartland Institute. This month, leaked documents exposed plans by Heartland to spend $200,000 to develop a K-12 curriculum to undermine the teaching of global warming in public schools.

For now, these GOP climate scientists may find some comfort in the fact that their understanding of global warming aligns with most moderate Republicans.

More than 60 percent of moderate and liberal Republicans, which make up a third of the party, say there is "solid evidence" of global warming, up from about 40 percent two years ago and the same as the American public at large, according to a national survey by the Pew Research Center released late last year. Thirty percent of Tea Party-leaning Republicans share this view.

InsideClimate News intern Zoe Schlanger contributed reporting and research to this report.

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