John Hoeven deserves a pat on the back.

Photographer: Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images

Republicans Evolve on Climate Change

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”
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Some rare good news came out of the U.S. Senate this week on climate change: There are at least 60 senators who believe that climate change is real and caused by human activity. That’s enough to break a filibuster on a bill, if they could ever agree on what it should include.

For years, Republicans have skirted the issue. Less noted, but equally important, is that they're also evolving on it. Within the party, the fight has moved on from whether climate change is real to whether human activity is causing it, as the scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates. Republicans have been reluctant to accept the evidence, because that would require doing something about it, which would lead to -- and this is crux of the issue -- new laws and regulations that interfere with the free market.

Climate Change

When science conflicts with ideology, ideology often wins, and not just with Republicans. Many Democrats oppose genetically modified food even though the science is overwhelmingly against them. But Republican opposition to climate science, the biggest impediment to discussing policies to reduce carbon emissions, is weakening.

On Wednesday, the Senate considered various amendments to the Keystone XL pipeline, pushed by Democrats who hoped to embarrass Republicans. Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York said that the amendments would reveal “who the climate-change deniers in the U.S. Senate really are.” An amendment declaring that climate change is not a hoax passed with only one vote against -- Mississippi’s Roger Wicker, the new chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. Various other Democratic amendments failed, but one proposed by Senator John Hoeven, Republican of North Dakota, got 59 votes -- one shy of the 60 necessary for passage. 

One of those voting no was Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a climate activist. Sanders believed the Hoeven amendment didn’t go far enough, according to his representative. The amendment read: “Climate change is real; and human activity contributes to climate change.” Sanders and others preferred an amendment stating that human activity “significantly” contributes to the problem. That we have reached the point where we are quibbling over whether to modify a verb is a sign of real progress.

Hoeven also voted against his amendment, fearing that passage would weaken Republican support for the overall bill, his representative told me. Nevertheless, for the first time we learned that there are at least 60 senators -- with Sanders or Hoeven providing the 60th vote -- who accept that human activity is contributing to climate change, including more than a dozen Republicans.

Two of those, Rand Paul and Lindsay Graham, may run for president. All of them are making it easier for others in the party to accept the evidence that scientists have been presenting. As with same-sex marriage, Republican opposition to climate science will continue to soften.

Having 60 senators agree that human activity is contributing to climate change is a long way from coming up with a piece of legislation that can pass. But it’s still fair to ask of a group that acknowledges the problem: What are you going to do about it?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net