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The Right Warms Up to Climate Change

Their pace is, well, glacial, but conservatives are definitely moving in the direction of endorsing climate change. Just don’t ask them to blame humans yet.

03.18.15 9:15 AM ET

Four years ago UC-Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller began releasing the results of a sweeping two-year climate study. It confirmed what the overwhelming majority of other climate studies had also found: that the Earth was warming and humans were almost entirely responsible. But what set Muller’s study apart was that prior to the release of his report, he had been known as a leading climate-change skeptic. For years he had criticized “exaggerators” like Penn State’s Michael Mann, who popularized the Hockey Stick graph depicting Earth’s temperatures rising abruptly after the Industrial Revolution. According to Muller, many climatologists were relying on unreliable data and potentially being biased in their temperature samplings.

Muller’s study was ambitious. He called it the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, and he set out to examine virtually every surface temperature reading he could get his hands on. All told, his team incorporated 1.6 billion measurements from 39,000 monitoring stations around the world. After assessing the results, Muller declared in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal that “you should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer.” He added that the climatologists he had so roundly criticized had “been very careful in their work” and managed to “avoid bias.”

One might have expected the climate-change deniers’ talking points to change quickly. After all, Muller had controlled for the key factors they claimed were not being controlled for—such as heat from cities, unreliable monitoring stations, solar effects, and biased temperature samplings. Moreover, Muller’s study received funding from the Koch brothers—wealthy, conservative political activists and prominent climate change deniers—precluding any financial rationale for Muller’s turnabout. But while Muller asserted his study should “cool this portion of the climate debate,” conservative politicians continued voicing, practically unabated, their denials and doubts.

Every Republican presidential candidate in 2012, for example, questioned or denied the reality of human-caused climate change (except Jon Huntsman, who was knocked out early). Others went even further. Two years after Muller’s study, Representative Steve King of Iowa called climate change “not science, more of a religion than a science.” Dana Rohrabacher of California said global warming was a “total fraud.” And just last year, Ted Cruz, a prospective 2016 presidential candidate, claimed that in the past 15 years, “there has been no recorded warming.” (Nine of the 10 hottest years on record have all taken place in the past 15 years, and 2014 was the hottest ever recorded).

Well, the tide may finally be turning. Where denial and obfuscation had long been the right’s M.O., an increasing number of conservative pols are being markedly less declarative. In recent months, for example, “I’m not a scientist” has been the favored talking point. Senators Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, and Joni Ernst; Representative John Boehner; and Governors Rick Scott and Bobby Jindal have all uttered some version of this when asked about climate change. It’s a cop-out of course (most politicians aren’t doctors, but they make medical policy; not farmers, but they make agricultural policy, etc.) and it was deservedly mocked by Stephen Colbert on his HBO show and by President Obama in this year’s State of the Union Address.

Still, as ludicrous as mumbling “I’m not a scientist” is when asked a question of such import, the phrase represents a slight retreat from the right’s long-held position of ideological unreason. In 2009, for example, Boehner was an unabashed denier, asserting that the idea that carbon dioxide could harm the environment was “outright comical.” Further evidence of this retreat was seen in January when every Republican senator but one voted for a resolution that stated global warming was real—with 15 Republicans even voting for a separate resolution that said humans contributed to it. Although the latter didn’t pass, Rand Paul, a prospective 2016 presidential candidate who has done plenty of equivocating on this issue, was one of the Yeas.

Last week, it was reported that Gov. Rick Scott of Florida had banned state officials from using the terms “global warming” and “climate change” in official correspondence. While the ban has been widely ridiculed—Florida, of course, is particularly endangered by rising sea levels—the episode ultimately served as more evidence of the right’s move away from a stance of total denial. True, the ban itself, reportedly imposed in 2011, was a striking example of that denial, but Scott’s comments to reporters indicated a shift. After denying any ban existed, Scott said, “We’ve talked to people on both sides of the issue. What we like to focus on is getting things done.”As evasive as that answer is, it’s a far cry from his position in 2011, when he declared, “I’ve not been convinced that there’s any man-made climate change. Nothing’s convinced me that there is.”  

I followed up with Berkeley’s Muller recently regarding the long-term repercussions of his study. He agreed that finally some conservative politicians do seem to accept the reality of global warming. But, he added, many remain “unsure of attribution.” While Muller still sees this as progress, without the majority of politicians acknowledging that warming is driven by human activity, mitigation efforts will remain slight. (Some of Muller’s skepticism persists: He objects to the term “climate change” because he doesn’t believe that other extreme weather events, like hurricanes and tornadoes, can be attributed to it.)

Of course, with the 2016 Republican primaries on the horizon—and the pandering to the hard right that goes with them—any progress is precarious. Indeed, to some conservative politicians the mere existence of a cold winter still apparently trumps warming trends that can be observed over 250 years, as Muller’s study tracked. In February, Senator James Inhofe, the new head of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, stood on the Senate floor and tossed a snowball to the presiding officer. “You know what that is?” he asked, in an attempt to mock the reality of global warming. “It’s a snowball… It’s very, very cold outside.”