GOP Victory May Be Defeat For Climate Change Policy The majority of Republicans running for House and Senate seats this year don't agree that human activity is responsible for global warming. And one outgoing GOP congressman says when he tells his colleagues he believes the science, "People look at you like you've grown an extra head or something."
NPR logo

GOP Victory May Be Defeat For Climate Change Policy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
GOP Victory May Be Defeat For Climate Change Policy

GOP Victory May Be Defeat For Climate Change Policy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

The more carbon that gets released into the atmosphere, the higher the average temperature rises. That's a scientific fact.

And human activity - driving, or flying, or manufacturing, or even turning on the lights - is the biggest contributor to the release of carbon. That, too, is a fact.

And yet the vast majority of Republicans running for House and Senate seats this year disagree.

Mr. RON JOHNSON (Republican, Wisconsin Senatorial Candidate): No, I absolutely do not believe that, you know, the science of men caused climate change is proven, not by any stretch of the imagination. I think it's far more likely that it's just sunspot activity.

Mr. KEN BUCK (Republican, Colorado Senatorial Candidate): I don't think manmade causes are the primary factor for global warming.

RAZ: That's Ken Buck, the GOP Senate candidate in Colorado. And before that, Ron Johnson, who's leading in the polls to become Wisconsin's next senator.

Our cover story this Saturday, the GOP and climate change and how one leading environmentalist says you can't tackle the problem without conservative buy-in.

But first, how we got to the point where a belief in scientific data became a political statement.

Mr. RICK PILTZ (Director, Climate Science Watch): I'm Rick Piltz, and I'm the director of Climate Science Watch.

RAZ: Climate Science Watch is a nonprofit that works to make sure climate science isn't distorted for political reasons.

But before that, he worked as a senior official for the Global Change Research Program from 1995 to 2005. It's the government's main office where all the scientific data on climate change carried out by U.S. researchers is gathered.

Mr. PILTZ: And it was an office where the world of science collided with the world of climate politics.

RAZ: In the spring of 2001, Rick Piltz was putting together a major report for Congress. That report would include clear evidence that tied carbon emissions to a rapid shift in global temperatures.

Mr. PILTZ: We were told in developing the next report to Congress of the research program to delete the pages that summarized the findings of the most recent IPCC report. To delete the material about the National Assessment of climate change impacts that had just come out.

RAZ: The IPCC is the international scientific body that collects all climate research from countries around the world. The National Assessment was a similar report that covered research from U.S.-based scientists. In both cases, the results were conclusive: Climate change was happening and human activity was speeding it up.

But the Bush White House didn't buy it.

Mr. PILTZ: The expertise had come together to make pretty clear and compelling statements. And to say that you didn't believe it was to say that you did not want to go along with the preponderance of scientific evidence.

RAZ: The science was being politicized?

Mr. PILTZ: Yes.

RAZ: Over the next four years, almost every report Piltz and his team put out was heavily edited by the White House. References to climate change or carbon emissions just deleted.

And many of those deletions were made by Philip Cooney. He was the chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. His previous job had been as a lawyer and lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute.

So by 2005, Rick Piltz had enough. And he went to the press. He wanted to show how scientific data was being censored. So in June of that year, The New York Times ran the story.

Mr. PILTZ: Cooney resigned a couple of days later from the White House. And I thought, wow, because the whole modus operandi seemed to be we're impervious, we don't bend. We don't care what you say. We don't care what you do. And then a few days after that, it was announced that he had taken up a position with ExxonMobil. And I thought, well, now there you go. That's - there's the old Buddha face.

RAZ: That's Rick Piltz. He's now the head of the nonprofit group, Climate Science Watch, that works to make sure climate science isn't politicized.

Now, very few Republicans in the House or Senate say they accept the evidence that humans are heating the planet. But Bob Inglis does, and he was punished for it. He's a Republican congressman from South Carolina who lost his primary bid for re-election. And he's worried that the Republican tent may be shrinking for people like him.

Representative BOB INGLIS (Republican, South Carolina): As a Republican, I believe that we should be talking about conservation, because that's our heritage. If you go back to Teddy Roosevelt, that's who we are. And after all, there are very few letter difference before conservatism and conservation.

RAZ: How many of your colleagues in the House, your Republican colleagues, just a ballpark estimate, do not agree with the notion that climate change is caused by humans?

Rep. INGLIS: Unfortunately, I think it's a clear majority of the Republican conference does not accept human causation in climate change. It's definitely not within the orthodoxy of conservatism as presented by, you know, 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.

RAZ: What happens to Republicans and conservatives who take an opposing view?

Rep. INGLIS: People look at you like you grew out an extra head or something. It's - you're definitely seen as some kind of an oddball, and perhaps even a heretic.

RAZ: I mean, you lost your primary bid for re-election. And one of the things your opponent argued was that you're not a true conservative Republican in part because of your position on climate change. You do, for the record, believe that it's caused at least in part by humans. Do you think it had something to do with the result in that primary?

Rep. INGLIS: First of all, yes, I do. People asked me if I believe in climate change. And I tell them, no, I don't believe in climate change. It's not big enough to be a matter of faith. My faith informs my reaction to the data.

But the data shows that there is climate change and that it stands to reason that it is in part human caused. And so, therefore, as responsible moral agents, we should act as stewards.

And so, what happened with me and the primary was just saying that climate change is real and let's do something about it.

RAZ: How would you make the idea of combating climate change more politically palatable as something the conservatives could buy into?

Rep. INGLIS: Well, first of all, make it about national security. We are dependent on the region of the world that doesn't like us very much for oil. We need to change the game there.

It's also about free enterprise. It's making it so the free enterprise system can actually solve this problem. Right now, the reason that free enterprise can't solve the problem is that petroleum and coal have freebies.

This lack of accountability, which, by the way, is a very bedrock conservative concept, even a biblical concept that we insist on accountability. So do we want to persist in a situation where we need to land the Marines in order to make sure that we have, in the future, the access to this petroleum that we must have? Or do we want to use the strength of America, which is the free enterprise system and the innovativeness of entrepreneurs and investors here to break that dependence?

So our choice is, do we play to our strengths? Or do we continue to play to our weakness, which is playing the oil game?

RAZ: That's Republican Congressman Bob Inglis of South Carolina, talking about conservatives and climate change.

Bob Inglis, thank you so much.

Rep. INGLIS: Great to be with you, Guy. Thank you.

RAZ: In 2000, then-candidate George W. Bush promised to tackle climate change. John McCain was one of the most prominent GOP voices on the issue. But by the middle of the decade, conservatives began to associate the fight against climate change with Al Gore.

And so, according to climate writer Bill McKibben, they turned against it.

Mr. BILL McKIBBEN (Scholar in Residence, Middlebury College; Founder, It's a real tragedy that it's happening because we badly need conservative thinkers to be playing the constructive role in this fight.

RAZ: Do you think that the position that many conservatives have about climate change, they believe it's a myth, do you think this is just about this election, getting elected, and then, you know, some of this rhetoric will begin to change?

Mr. McKIBBEN: Well, I suppose that's possible, but it doesn't sound that way really. I think that it's becoming a kind of part of the intellectual armor of the right. And that's really, really damaging.

You know, on this issue maybe more than most, we need that interplay of liberal and conservative. Liberals are good at sort of pointing the way forward in kind of progressive new directions, and conservatives are very good at providing the anchor that says human nature won't go along with that. You know, that back and forth has been very useful.

On this issue, if we can't get conservatives to adapt to the reality that every atmospheric physicist and chemist is providing, it's going to be awfully hard.

RAZ: If Republicans retake the House in the fall, what happens next year to any kind of climate change legislation?

Mr. McKIBBEN: Oh, I think there won't be any. Look, the Democrats - with a huge majority - couldn't pass climate change legislation even of a very, very weak variety this year. So I doubt there'll be any action over the next two years.

If there's a fight at all, it will be over the question of whether the EPA will be allowed to continue regulating carbon. And I think even now this is going to be called severely into question after the election.

RAZ: As you point out, many conservatives and Democrats as well are opposed to over-regulation. So how would you sell fighting climate change to conservatives?

Mr. McKIBBEN: Here's the bottom line, 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, and we desperately need conservatives at the forefront of the fight against it.

And 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.

RAZ: That's Bill McKibben, he's the scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont and the founder of His most recent book is "Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet." Bill McKibben, thank you so much.

Mr. McKIBBEN: Thank you so much, Guy. Take care.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.