NPR “All Things Considered” interviewed CSW director Rick Piltz, Rep. Bob Inglis (R-South Carolina), and environmentalist Bill McKibben for an October 23 lead story on Republicans and denial of the scientific evidence for human-caused climate change. The war on climate science has developed over a long period, but today is arguably worse than ever. Compared with the radical know-nothing litmus test for politicians we see now, on climate science most of the Bush Administration, bad as it was, was downright nuanced and moderate.Link to archived 11-minute audio webcast.
A majority of Republican members of Congress, and the vast majority of Republican candidates for Congress this year, are turning against the science of climate change and appearing to deny the evidence that human activity, our burning of fossil fuels, in causing global climate change.
How did we get to the point where disbelief in scientific evidence became a widely adopted political statement? This didn’t just happen overnight.
NPR asked me to look back on my experience with censorship and misrepresentation of the scientific intelligence in climate change communications under the Bush-Cheney administration, working in the coordination office of the U.S. Global Change Research program.
“It was an office,” I said, “where the world of science collided with the world of climate politics.” In developing climate research program reports to Congress, for example, we were directed by the State Department to delete pages that summarized the findings of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report, and by the White House to delete even references to the National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts.
“The expertise had come together to make pretty clear and compelling statements. To say that you didn’t believe it was to say that you didn’t go along with the preponderance of scientific evidence.”
The science was being politicized. I didn’t have time to discuss it on NPR, but the pattern was multifaceted, affecting media communications, Congressional testimony, science program reports, scientific assessment activity, and other political interference with federal climate scientists.
I have often said that no administration is above criticism for how it handles scientific information and communications in policymaking – but that, with the Bush Administration we were seeing something different, in its aggressive predilection for spinning intelligence in order to conform it to predetermined political conclusions.
But – again, a point I didn’t have time to make in the interview – by 2008 the Bush Administration was backing away from outright misrepresentation of climate science. Of course, on the policy side, they had made it clear they were running out the clock on engaging in meaningful action, that EPA would not be allowed to move forward on regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and that high-level political officials wouldn’t openly embrace the conclusions stated by scientists, or do much to publicize key assessment reports that were finally being published.
Among high-level officials, only Vice-President Cheney stood out in maintaining a denialist posture. But today, most of the Republican Party appears to be channeling the worst of Cheney on climate change.
Rep. Bob Inglis, a six-term Republican Congressman from South Carolina and member of the House Committee on Science and Technology, lost his primary bid for re-election to a Tea Party-backed candidate who accused him of not being conservative enough, at least in part because of his record of accepting reality on climate change.
"As a Republican, I believe we should be talking about conservation, because that's our heritage,” Inglis said to NPR. “If you go back to Teddy Roosevelt, that's who we are."
How many of Mr. Inglis’s Republican colleagues in the House don’t agree that climate change is caused by humans?
“Unfortunately, I think a clear majority does not accept human causality in climate change. It’s definitely not within the orthodoxy of conservatism as presented by Sarah Palin and folks like her. So you don’t want to stand against that. And the result is that some people are sort of cowed into silence.”
What happens to Republicans and conservatives who take an opposing view?
"People look at you like you've grown an extra head or something. You’re definitely seen as some kind of oddball – and perhaps even a heretic.”
“People ask me if I believe in climate change,” Inglis said. “I say I don’t ‘believe’ in it – it’s not big enough to rise to the level of faith – my faith informs the way I react to the data. The data shows that there is climate change….caused at least in part by humans, and that as responsible moral agents we should act as stewards.”
Bill McKibben, scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont, the founder of 350.org, and the author most recently of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, called it a tragedy that conservatives are turning their back on the science behind climate change.
“It appears that this is becoming part of the intellectual armor of the Right, and that’s really damaging,” he said to NPR. “There’s nothing ‘conservative’ about doubling the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and seeing what happens. This is the most radical project that human beings have ever undertaken.”…
“The sooner that conservatives are willing to accept the science, the reality, the sooner we can get to work with their very important help in figuring out what set of prescriptions, what combination of market and regulation will be required in order to deal with the most serious problem we've ever stumbled into.”
What happens during the next two years on climate legislation?
“I think there won’t be any….The Democrats with a large majority couldn’t pass climate legislation even of a very weak variety this year….If there’s a fight at all, it will be over the question of whether EPA will be allowed to continue regulating carbon, and I think even that is likely to be called severely into question after the election.”