Stages of Denial

The various ways GOP presidential hopefuls do not believe in climate change.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).

Denial: It’s not just a river in Texas and Kentucky. Sens. Ted Cruz, left, and Rand Paul should know better.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo. Photos by Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images and Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Obama this week unveiled his blueprint for cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by nearly a third over the next decade. The proposal, submitted to the United Nations ahead of this year’s Paris climate talks, relies almost entirely on initiatives Obama had already used his executive authority to put into motion over Republican objections: strict new pollution rules for new and existing power plants, plugging methane leaks from the oil and gas industry, and ramping up the fuel economy of America’s cars and trucks.


The president’s let-me-repeat-myself plan was greeted with applause from those climate activists desperate for something, anything, to cheer. But, as my colleague Eric Holthaus pointed out, the proposal is largely undeserving of earthly applause: There is nothing to suggest it will help slow global warming enough to avoid the type of catastrophic impacts that risk fundamentally altering the systems that support human civilization as we know it.


Depressed? Just wait until next year.

The best the 2016 election can realistically do is preserve the status quo, leaving us with a climate-conscious president, if a Democrat wins, still stymied by a climate change-denying Congress. Given that Democrats are unlikely to pull off the miracle they’d need to retake the legislative branch, if that dynamic changes at all it will almost certainly change for the worse: to a climate change-denying president working hand in hand with a climate change-denying Congress to dismantle Obama’s environmental legacy one EPA regulation at a time.


Still, not all GOP denialism is created equal. Perhaps as important as what Republicans believe is how they justify that belief to an American public that is slowly but surely catching up with the scientific consensus. With that in mind, it’s worth taking a closer look at the different kinds of denialism currently on display from Republicans in Washington and on the campaign trail.

We’re Ready to … Talk
White House hopefuls: Lindsey Graham, Chris Christie
Senators: Graham, Susan Collins, Lamar Alexander, Kelly Ayotte, Mark Kirk

This, sadly, is as good as it gets. This group doesn’t fully acknowledge just how serious of a problem the science says we’re facing, but they at least concede it’s a real problem that needs to be addressed. The issue: They don’t have an answer to the question of how to address it, other than to say Obama’s way is wrong. Graham has been a leader on this issue in the Senate for years—most notably working on cap and trade before abandoning that ship as it went down in 2010—and appears the most eager to force the issue on the campaign trail. “Before we can be bipartisan, we gotta figure out where we are as a party,” Graham said last month. “What is the environmental platform of the Republican Party? I’d like to come up with one. I’d like to have a debate within the party.”


Christie has been in no hurry to take part in that debate, but if he runs for the Republican nomination, it will be difficult for him to walk away from comments like this one he made back in 2011: “When you have over 90 percent of the world’s scientists who have studied this stating that climate change is occurring and that humans play a contributing role it’s time to defer to the experts.” Don’t expect Christie to offer his own plan on the debate stage, but there’s at least some hope he’d dole out tough love on the general issue to his fellow Republicans.

It’s Just Not Worth It
White House hopeful: Rand Paul
Senate: Paul, Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, Orrin Hatch, Dean Heller, John McCain, Lisa Murkowski, Rob Portman, Mike Rounds, Pat Toomey


All five senators in the “we’re ready to talk” group voted for the Keystone amendment that acknowledged man plays a “significant” role in climate change. Those in this group were only willing to go as far as to say that man plays a role—a position that provides some cover against claims of full-on denialism, but one that still allows them to sit on their hands and do nothing without feeling particularly bad about it. “I’m not against regulation,” Paul said during a November interview with HBO’s Bill Maher. “I think the environment has been cleaned up dramatically through regulations on emissions as well as clean water over the last 40 or 50 years, but I don’t want to shut down all forms of energy such that thousands and thousands of people lose their jobs.” The justification here is that the nation’s short-term economic concerns should trump the globe’s long-term climate fate. A similar argument that pops up from this group is that Washington’s attention is better focused on current national security threats than on future climate ones.


We Can’t Do It Alone, So We Shouldn’t Do It All
White House hopeful: Carly Fiorina
Senate: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

This justification is particularly frustrating given the GOP’s bid to undermine Obama’s efforts to actually broker international climate deals with countries like China and India. “When discussing climate, scientists may agree that some policy change is warranted, but they also agree that action by a single state or nation will make little difference,” Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, wrote in a 2014 op-ed. As Jonathan Chait points out, McConnell has deployed this logic himself, even though this week he went out of his way to try to sabotage any U.N. deal—the epitome of not doing it alone—by reminding the world that the GOP will do everything in its power to make sure the White House can’t reach even those limited goals.


The Unknowable Nature of Truth
White House hopefuls: Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Rick Perry
Senate: Rubio

Welcome to the GOP mainstream. This is the largest subspecies of Republican climate change denialism, the type of politician who dodges climate question by saying they are “not a scientist.” Declaring the science unsettled conveniently frees these guys up from the responsibility of even looking for a solution. “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it … and I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy,” Rubio declared last year. During a recent trip to New Hampshire, Bush struck a similar chord, arguing that the federal government’s role in combating climate change should be limited to conducting basic research. This stance is probably best summed up by 2011 Mitt Romney (not to be confused with the 2015 version), who declared: “We don’t know what’s causing climate change, and the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try and reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.”


It’s a Hoax!
White House hopefuls: Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee
Senate: Cruz, James Inhofe, Roger Wicker

This group might be declared the GOP fringe—that is, if one of their most vocal members didn’t also hold the gavel of the powerful Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. When not penning books like The Greatest Hoax, Chairman Inhofe can be found throwing snowballs on the Senate floor in a misguided attempt to disprove climate science. Inhofe and Cruz voted for the not-a-hoax Keystone amendment in March, but that was quite clearly a calculated game of semantics. Last month Cruz veered back toward full-on denial during the rollout of his 2016 presidential campaign, dubbing himself a modern-day Galileo while cherry-picking climate data to claim that the satellite data proves there hasn’t been any significant global warming in the past 17 years. (You’ll find a detailed breakdown of the many, many flaws in that argument here.)


There is one likely presidential candidate whom I can’t quite fit into any of the above subgroups: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. While he has attacked Obama’s proposed power plant rules and pledged to oppose any climate bill that includes a tax or fee of any kind, he’s nonetheless routinely refused to answer specific climate science questions—even when they are posed by a second-grader. He is, I would say, in a class of his own.