Where they stand: On climate change, difference between parties is stark

Monitor staff
Last modified: Sunday, January 31, 2016
Even in a campaign season where opinions diverge wildly, it’s hard to think of a topic with a broader range of candidate reactions than climate change.

Democrats think it’s a big problem, perhaps the biggest problem facing the country, and requires a big government response, while Republicans tend to think either it’s not enough of a problem to worry about or it isn’t a problem at all, perhaps even a massive hoax.

And while the scientific community is very concerned about changes coming our way, spurred by NOAA’s report that 2015 was Earth’s hottest year on record, this is probably not an issue that will drive the primary results, since only 6 percent of voters called it their most important issue in an October national poll.

As Wired magazine put it in covering the final Democratic debate: “Clinton and Sanders Spar Over Climate, But Voters Probably Don’t Give a Hoot.”

Candidates’ positions on climate change can be broken down into three questions: Is it real? If so, are humans causing it? If so, what should be done?

We’ll address each one.

Is the Earth warming at an unusual rate in recent years, causing unpredictable changes in the climate?

Several Republicans don’t buy the climate change argument.

They include Ted Cruz, who at a major conference last summer said data supporting climate change was due to people “cooking the books,” comparing it to the fake accounting done by Enron during its 2001 scandal; Donald Trump, who told CNN in September “I don’t believe in climate change”; as well as Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who have both dismissed any evidence out of hand.

Many have pointed to satellite data they claim indicates no global warming for the past decade or two.

Marco Rubio and Ben Carson have both said that the climate is always changing and there’s no indication that anything unusual is happening. “There’s always going to be either cooling or warming,” Carson told an interviewer in September.

Several Republicans support the idea that it appears something unusual is happening in the climate but that it’s not clear what. They say it’s not an urgent issue.

They include Rand Paul, who voted for a 2015 Senate amendment saying that climate change is real but has been more equivocal lately; Carly Fiorina, who cautioned interviewer Katie Couric to “read the fine print” in scientific studies supporting climate change; and Chris Christie, who told MSNBC’s Morning Joe in December that “it’s not a crisis.”

Jeb Bush and John Kasich have made the strongest statements during campaigns about climate change of any Republican, although they say it’s not anywhere near a priority.

“I don’t know why the president feels compelled to overstate the possible potential long-range challenge of climate change and put it the highest priority at the expense of economic growth . . . and most particularly today about the threat of Islamic terrorism,” Bush told a talk show host.

The theme that the Obama administration exaggerates the issue, creating a distraction from more important matters, is repeated by all Republicans.

On the Democratic side, the three candidates all agree that the Earth is warming at unusual rates, perhaps unprecedented ones, producing dangerous changes in the climate.

Bernie Sanders made the issue one of the centerpieces of his campaign from the start, calling it the biggest national security threat during the first Democratic debate.

Martin O’Mally has said climate change helped spark the collapse of Syria and the rise of some Islamic terrorism, while Hillary Clinton has called climate change “unforgiving.”

If you believe the climate 
is changing, are humans 
the cause?

Scientists generally agree that the burning of fossil fuels is the major cause of a spike in atmospheric carbon and other greenhouse gases that is trapping more heat, producing climate change, saying that other human activities such as deforestation also contribute.

Among Republicans who accept climate change, only Kasich agrees with this, although cautiously. “Do I think that human beings affect it? I do. How much? Not enough for me to go out and cost somebody their job,” he told an Iowa town hall in October.

“For people to say the science is decided on this is just really arrogant,” Bush told a talk show host.

By contrast, all three Democrats say that human activity is the main driver of climate change, and make reducing use of fossil fuels in the U.S., part of their overall package of positions.

If humans are the cause, 
what should be done?

No Republican supports any action related to climate change, arguing that they will be bad for the economy.

“We’re not going to make America a harder place to create jobs in order to pursue policies that will do absolutely nothing, nothing to change our climate,” Rubio said in the September debate.

Fiorina argued in the Couric interview that even if action was possible, there’s nothing America can do on its own and that taking action will just play into the hands of the Chinese by giving them an economic advantage.

The three Democrats, on the other hand, say that creating alternatives to fossil fuels will be an economic boost for the country, not an economic drag, all targeted variations on the theme of a clean-energy economy.

Clinton has called for installing a half-billion solar panels by 2020, a sevenfold increase from today, and to generate enough energy from carbon-free sources within 10 years of her inauguration to power every home in America.

She set a goal to produce 33 percent of the nation’s electricity from renewable sources by 2027, five times today’s percentage and more than the goal set by President Obama.

O’Malley proposed a Clean Energy Jobs Corps to “retrofit buildings to be more energy efficient . . . create new green spaces, and restore and expand our forests so they can absorb more greenhouse gases” as well as new government financing systems to pay for infrastructure projects, including upgrading the grid.

Sanders, reflecting his emphasis on the financial system, emphasizes “ending the huge subsidies that benefit fossil fuel companies” and says that “a tax on carbon is one of the most straightforward and cost-effective strategies for quickly fighting climate change.”

Another point of obvious difference between the parties: All Democrats support President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which would probably not create any new restrictions on New Hampshire emissions, and the U.N. Climate Accord, which sets nonbinding carbon-reduction goals, while all Republicans reject them both.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)