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Republicans are Agnostic about Climate Change

January 3rd 2015

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High-profile Republicans converged this year around a new favorite refrain when it comes to climate change: “I’m not a scientist.” Party leaders and candidates for office repeated variations of the theme throughout the year when asked whether manmade climate change is happening and what should be done about it.

“What I have said repeatedly is I’m not a scientist,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) told a Kentucky sports radio show. “I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change,” Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) said of the Obama administration’s climate rule for power plants.

“I’d leave it to the scientists to decide how much, what it means, and what the consequences are,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, considered a contender for the White House in 2016, said when asked how much human activity is changing the planet’s climate.

“I don’t know the science behind climate change,” Sen.-elect Joni Ernst (Iowa) said in a debate.

Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), another 2016 contender, may have been one of the earliest Republicans to use the line in 2012. GOP strategists and observers say the line is ripe for mockery, given that politicians are expected to take positions on a whole host of issues without training in a given field. Still, they said the refrain is as an important placeholder for candidates as the party grapples with its stance on climate change in the face of deep conservative skepticism.

“It sounds like one of the most nonsensical GOP talking points in quite some time,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who advised Sen. John McCain’s (Ariz.) 2008 campaign for president. But O’Connell said “I’m not a scientist” plays an important, albeit temporary, role in the broader GOP debate. “The fact is, the party’s not come to a consensus on how they want to deal with the issue of climate change,” he said. “What they do agree on is that they do not want to pass what they see as middle-class job-killing regulations and taxes. But they want to maintain flexibility until they come to a consensus on the best way to handle it down the line.”

The use of the phrase marks a slight shift for conservatives that some observers say reflects the changing politics of the issue, with President Obama tackling climate change though executive action and scientists adamant that their evidence grows stronger by the day. “It’s a rhetorical shift, obviously. There’s no policy behind it,” said Tony Leiserowitz, director of Yale University’s project on climate change communication. “But it is an interesting rhetorical shift, because it’s definitely a step back from ‘it’s a hoax,’ it’s definitely a step back from ‘it’s not happening.’ ” Leiserowitz said there’s a tension between the establishment and Tea Party wings of the Republican Party over whether they should budge on opposing climate change policies. “They’re trying to tread this very tiny, thin line between those two sides, and it’s not tenable in the long run,” Leiserowitz said.

It’s also an attempt to draw attention away from climate change, O’Connell said. Whichever side Republicans take on the issue, it can be harmful, he said, calling it a “prisoner’s dilemma.” “If you deny climate change, it brings attention to the issue,” he said. “And if you concede that it exists, voters will expect you to find a solution, which could lead to regulations and taxes and could cost jobs.”

Since climate change still falls low on voters’ priority lists in most polls, punting the issue to experts can be a smart political play. “Probably the best they can do to deflect on an issue that most voters don't put a high priority on,” said another strategist. David Goldston, the top lobbyist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, predicted the “scientist” line wouldn’t be accepted by the public for long. “It’s pretty much reached its expiration date,” Goldston said. “It has a very short shelf life because it is so easy to poke holes in.”

Goldston referenced McConnell’s plans to hold votes next year on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules and other climate-related issues. “It’s going to become much more obvious to the public where people are and what’s at stake,” he said. Leiserowitz predicted the 2016 presidential election cycle will end with “I’m not a scientist” dead and buried. “I just can’t see that it’s going to be tenable to hold that position,” he said. “They’re going to be increasingly forced to take a position,” he added, referring to candidates for the Republican nomination.

O’Connell said he expects the GOP will step back and allow the eventual 2016 nominee to decide for him or herself where to go next on the issue of climate change, whether it means coming up with policy proposals that align with GOP principles, continuing to push back against Democrats or something else. “You want to give that nominee the most flexibility possible,” he said.

Timothy Cama writes for The Hill, from where this article is adapted.


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