As Santorum Surges, Sound Science Sags
By Bill Walker
There’s a new ringleader of the skeptics' circus — otherwise known as the 2012 field of Republican presidential candidates.
Rick Santorum’s out-of-nowhere surge to a virtual tie for first place in the Iowa caucuses may not boost him to frontrunner status in next week’s New Hampshire primary and the states beyond. But in the contest to see which GOP candidate can be the biggest doubter of the science of climate change, Santorum is the unchallenged leader of the pack.
Senator Rick Santorum at the Ames, Iowa Straw Poll. Credit: Gage Skidmore/flickr.
Santorum not only denies that manmade global warming is a growing concern, he denies its very existence. “There is no such thing as global warming,” he once said on Glenn Beck’s show, adding that it’s “patently absurd” to think a naturally occurring substance like CO2 – “a trace gas in the atmosphere, and the man-made part of that trace gas is itself a trace gas “ – is warming the planet. (Well, not if you understand the greenhouse effect.) He told Rush Limbaugh: “I’ve never . . . accepted the junk science behind that narrative.”
But it’s not really about “junk” science. Santorum simply doesn’t accept science. A devout evangelical Catholic, Santorum also rejects evolution and tried to amend federal law to require the teaching of “intelligent design” in public schools. After his fellow candidate, Jon Huntsman, affirmed his belief in evolution, Santorum said: "If Governor Huntsman wants to believe that he is the descendant of a monkey, then he has the right to believe that."
Santorum lost Iowa by only eight votes; you have to wonder if coming out against the germ theory of disease would have put him over the top.
And it’s not just Santorum. For a long time, Congressional Republicans insisted there must be “sound science” behind environmental regulations. Now Republican politicians at all levels are rejecting sound science, either as a matter of faith or in a transparent bid for the votes of the party’s anti-science wing. Trust in science has become an electoral liability.
Four years ago, GOP nominee John McCain said without reservation that people are warming the planet and it’s time to act. This year the GOP debates have sounded like a panel discussion at a convention of the American Petroleum Institute. With one exception, all the candidates have embraced positions that run counter to facts the overwhelming majority of scientists agree on. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote:
So it’s now highly likely that the presidential candidate of one of our two major political parties will either be a man who believes what he wants to believe, even in the teeth of scientific evidence, or a man who pretends to believe whatever he thinks the party’s base wants him to believe.
The Republican presidential candidates participating in the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate in August. Credit: Iowa Politics/flickr.
In one corner, the flip-floppers. Mitt Romney has reversed course on climate change so dramatically he seems to be debating himself. In 2008 Newt Gingrich taped an ad with Nancy Pelosi urging action on global warming. Now he says it was “the dumbest thing I’ve done.” Ron Paul has also done an about-face. He once acknowledged that “something (is) afoot” and that human activity had something to do with it, but later called the idea of manmade climate change “the greatest hoax (in) . . . hundreds of years.”
In the other it’s the hard-core deniers, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachman (formerly) and Santorum. Perry’s skepticism is particularly harsh — he believes climate scientists have manipulated data to pull in research money — and self-righteous. He likened current global warming skepticism to Galileo’s 17th century stand against the notion that the sun orbits the Earth.
The one candidate unafraid to publicly affirm global warming science is Huntsman, who (perhaps as a result) barely registers in the polls. Just months ago he tweeted:
“To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”
It’s tempting to instead apply that label to his rivals. But what’s really behind the candidates’ race to the scientific bottom?
Dr. Larry Hamilton, a sociologist and pollster at the University of New Hampshire, told Climate Central some Republicans are skeptical of climate change science because they don’t like the proposed solutions to the problem, such as cap and trade, which they view as oppressive government regulation. But he also said among the party’s rank-and-file, especially the evangelical faction with outsize influence in the primaries, there is an alarming level of distrust of science itself.
“In national surveys,” Hamilton said, “Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say they don’t trust scientists as a source of information about environmental issues.”
A Public Policy Polling survey found that only 21 percent of Republican caucus voters in Iowa believe in global warming and only 35 percent accept evolution. Hamilton said it’s not that different in New Hampshire, where the Granite State Poll found that 31 percent of Republicans accept manmade climate change as a fact.
So what’s a rational Republican who trusts science and is concerned about climate change to do?
Farrell Seiler, chairman of New Hampshire Republicans for Climate, said he and his members will vote for Huntsman (although the more they’ve looked at his energy policy the less impressed they are). Seiler attributed the relatively greater acceptance of science among New Hampshire Republicans to the fact that the state is in “the direct line of fire” of extreme weather, particularly on its coast.
In November, Seiler’s group sponsored a New Hampshire town hall meeting on climate change and invited all the GOP candidates. They realized the frontrunners wouldn’t come, but they made a special effort to reach out to Huntsman. They wanted to know why, after his “call me crazy” tweet, he seemed to back off his position.
“We wanted to send a message that there are Republicans who get it on climate,” Seiler said. “We hoped Jon Huntsman would be willing to make a strong statement in front of a climate-friendly audience. But he didn’t show.”
Bill Walker, a writer and columnist for Climate Central, is a former newspaper correspondent and for more than 20 years a communications strategist for leading environmental organizations. He lives in Berkeley, Calif.