Happy Earth Day! Unless You’re Running for President in the GOP

Earth Day finds Republican candidates questioning global warming.

In this handout photo provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) on July 17, 2014, German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst took this image of the Earth reflecting light from the sun whilst aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Photo by Alexander Gerst / ESA via Getty Images

It’s Earth Day, but that isn't stopping Republican presidential candidates from questioning whether global warming is real, whether humankind is causing it or whether plans to address the problem will bankrupt the economy.

It’s an awkward dance for Republicans, who face divergent pressures: a party electorate skeptical of a top priority of President Barack Obama; a public increasingly convinced of the scientific consensus that the Earth is warming; and donors tied to oil and coal eager to head off new government mandates.

“Republicans have essentially painted themselves into a corner on climate change in the last few years,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. “They’re between a rock and a hard place.”

To shimmy through, each candidate is walking a slightly different path.

To be sure, not all of the difficulty is felt by Republicans. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton faces pressure from environmental activists to denounce the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that was under her review while she was Secretary of State. And former Democratic Senator Jim Webb has said he opposes the Environmental Protection Agency's plan to cut carbon emissions. The Virginian, whose state has a coal dependent economy in its southwest corner, says the Clean Air Act wasn't intended to target carbon dioxide.

On the Republican side, Texas Senator Ted Cruz has dismissed the “global warming alarmists.” Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who tried to boost renewable energy as a state lawmaker, says the climate is never stable, but humans aren’t causing “these dramatic changes.” Kentucky Senator Rand Paul voted for an amendment saying climate change is real and human activity contributes to it, but has also mocked alarmist claims and sponsored Senate measures to halt environmental regulations.

Donald Trump

Businessman Donald Trump tweeted during the January freeze, “This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bull-- has got to stop. Our planet is freezing, record low temps.”

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry has called the EPA’s carbon rules a “direct assault” on energy providers, and his office answered questions about climate change with a roundup of his efforts to boost oil production.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, whose state is home to the Everglades and coastal communities that resist offshore drilling, is taking a more nuanced approach. He said the U.S. must be “cognizant” of climate change, and then hailed the boom in fracking for natural gas as a way to displace coal and cut greenhouse-gas emissions. And, “we need to work with the rest of the world to negotiate a way to reduce carbon emissions,” Bush said.

On climate matters other than Keystone, Clinton has been more forceful. Clinton spoke to the green League of Conservation Voters in December, and in that speech said Obama’s rules to cut carbon from power plants “must be protected at all cost.” She also said she supported an agreement with China on emissions, calling all that Obama has done “just the beginning of what is needed.”

Chairman Podesta

Clinton showed how supportive she is of Obama’s environmental policy by hiring its main architect, John Podesta, to chair her campaign.

“The science of climate change is unforgiving, no matter what the deniers may say,” Clinton said in the speech. “If we act decisively now we can still head off the most catastrophic consequences.”

One person who knows well the bind the Republican candidates are in is former Republican Representative Bob Inglis. Inglis lost his South Carolina primary campaign in 2010 in part because of his outspoken acceptance of climate science and support for a carbon tax.

Now he’s traveling the country to try to prod Republicans to follow his lead. Despite his experience, he thinks Republicans can end their ridicule of Al Gore, they can find an electoral winner. And there’s a chance that could happen this election, Inglis predicts.

Recession Fears

“There is the opportunity for somebody to break out of the ‘Ain’t it so bad’ approach and embrace the future,” Inglis said in an interview. Inglis sees a slow transition away from the denial of mainstream science that hit its apex in 2010, in the wake of the Great Recession.

By 2014, that denial became an agnosticism, as candidates answered questions about climate science with the ready reply that they were not scientists. The “I am not a scientist” line was roundly mocked, and now there’s a new approach, he said: candidates say efforts to transition away from fossil fuels will devastate the U.S. economy.

“I think that’s a very short-lived position, because it’s inconsistent with American exceptionalism,” said Inglis, who is set to get the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for his climate stance.

Primary Voters

A Republican who accepted the scientific consensus that the buildup of greenhouse gases is causing the climate to change, and said government must act to reduce those emissions, could get an electoral windfall in a general election, said Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University researcher who published new results on polling on these issues this month.

But “there are three potential audiences for messages of these sort,” Krosnick said, listing to general election voters, primary voters and donors. “A message that works well with one group, may not work well with others.”

Republicans are more skeptical of both the science and government regulation than Democrats and Independents.

Observers would have to squint hard to detect any movement among the main Republican candidates. They all back the Keystone XL pipeline, embrace the boom in U.S. oil and gas production, say the economy trumps climate action now and, among those that answered, say a deal to cut emissions between Obama and China is one-sided and toothless.

Under that agreement, the U.S. pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. China pledged that its emissions would peak in 2030.

Bloomberg asked most of the major presidential candidates and likely presidential candidates for their responses to the following questions. A complete list of responses and positions researched by Bloomberg reporters is here.

Five Questions

1. Do you accept the science that human activity is contributing to the changing climate?

2. Do you see the U.S. -China pace to reduce carbon emissions as a step forward in reducing global warming?

3. Do you support the proposed EPA plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants?

4. Do you support the Keystone XL pipeline?

5. Do you support government incentives, such as tax breaks or credits, to support alternative forms of energy production? If so, which?

Ted Cruz’s campaign declined to answer Bloomberg’s questions. He told the Texas Tribune on March 24:

“I’m a big believer that we should follow the science, and follow the evidence. If you look at global warming alarmists, they don’t like to look at the actual facts and data. The satellite data demonstrate that there has been no significant warming whatsoever for 17 years. Now that’s a big problem for the global warming alarmists.”

“I read this morning a Newsweek article from the 1970s talking about global cooling. It said the science is clear...And the solution for all the advocates in the 70s of goverment cooling was massive government control of the energy sector, the economy and aspects of our lives. And so the data appeared to be not backing up that theory, and so all the advocates for global cooling shifted to global warming. And the solution, interestingly enough, was the exact same solution, government control of the energy sector and every aspect of our lives....When someone keeps proposing the same solution regardless of the problem, you start to think that maybe they just want government control of the energy sector and every aspect of our lives.”

“Today the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the Flat Earthers. It used to be it is accepted scientific wisdom. There an awful lot of people making a whole lot of money off global warming. Al Gore has made millions.”

“You know it used to be it is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat, and this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.”

“We shouldn’t be causing millions of hardworking men and women to have their energy bills go through the roof. It causes real suffering when single Moms who are trying to feed their kids see their energy bills skyrocket because politicians want to impose costs.”

—With assistance from Duane D. Stanford in Atlanta, Emily Greenhouse in New York, Michael C. Bender, Kathleen Hunter, David Weigel, Aryeh Natter and Heidi Przybyla in Washington, Jennifer Epstein in New Hampshire, John McCormick in Chicago, David Knowles in San Francisco and Terrence Dopp in Trenton.