At some point in the past few years, it dawned on leading Republicans that dismissing the science behind climate change was not doing them any favors with the public. Recent polls show that a clear majority of Americans believe the climate is in fact changing, and nearly half view that as a major threat to the country’s future.
But to embrace the science, for a GOP leader, would be to alienate a powerful conservative base that continues to plug its ears and shout “Climategate” when confronted with the evidence. And so, one by one, top Republicans—including presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio—have fallen back on what is becoming the new party line: “I’m not a scientist.”
It is not a particularly compelling line, as many analysts have pointed out. “It’s got to be the dumbest answer I’ve ever heard,” one Republican energy lobbyist told the New York Times. “Using that logic would disqualify politicians from voting on anything.”
To some extent, GOP leaders are banking on polls that show Americans don’t consider climate change a top national priority. More than that, they’re banking on Democrats being too timid to push back very hard on environmental issues, for fear of being painted as liberal tree-huggers.
Obama used to be timid on the environment. He isn’t anymore.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday, the president had this to say about the “I’m not a scientist” cop-out:
No challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change. 2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does — 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.
I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.
He’s taken on that line before on smaller stages, including in a June speech in drought-choked California. By hammering on it again Tuesday, he signaled that he now views climate as a winning issue for Democrats on the national level. If he’s right, that could spell trouble for Bush and other Republican contenders.
If other Democrats follow Obama’s lead in turning “I’m not a scientist” into a laugh line, Bush and other Republican leaders are eventually going to have to run to higher ground.
Previously in Slate: