Fit To Print: The GOP's Deepening Climate Change Divide

CPAC 2015The Republican party's deep divisions on climate change and the environment were on full display at the recently-concluded Conservative Political Aciton Committee (CPAC). How the GOP presidential contenders attempt to navigate these divisions is an important news story that deserves media attention in the weeks and months ahead.

Several weeks ahead of CPAC, a poll came out showing that 48% of Republicans would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports taking action on climate change, compared to just 24% who would be less likely to vote for such a candidate. The poll also showed that GOP supporters are inclined to oppose candidates who view climate change as a “hoax” by the same 2-to-1 ratio.

While many self-described Republicans support climate action, it seems unlikely that the same can be said of the conservative activists and donors who attended this year's CPAC.

CPAC attendees are far more engaged than rank-and-file Republicans, and the GOP presidential contenders know that winning support -- financial and otherwise -- from the CPAC base will be crucial if they hope to emerge from a crowded primary field and ultimately capture the presidency. But trying to appease the CPAC crowd's anti-environmental extremism without alienating most Americans -- and even many Republicans -- could prove to be an insurmountable task.

Consider the CPAC panel discussion devoted to climate change, titled, “Climate: What Tom Steyer Won't Tell You.”  Here is a sampling of the overt climate change denial and environmental conspiracy theories that the panelists espoused during that discussion:

  • The Competitive Enterprise Institute's Myron Ebell falsely claimed NASA deceptively "switch[es] the data" to make their climate change models look accurate. He also declared that President Obama doesn't really care about the environment but is pushing environmental regulations because they are the best way to “take control of the U.S. economy.”
  • The Heritage Foundation's Becky Norton Dunlop proclaimed that disgraced climate change denier Willie Soon is a "great scientist." She also warned that the Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality rules are really an attempt to “prevent [the public] from getting the truth” about climate change and the Obama administration's environmental policies.
  • The Institute for Liberty's Andrew Langer complained that groups exposing the fossil fuel funding of climate change deniers are trying to “bully people into no longer funding critical research and research that is skeptical of anthropogenic climate change.”
  • Texas Congressman Bill Flores claimed that the EPA is excluding California from strict ozone regulations because “California is a blue state and Tom Steyer lives there.” (As the Los Angeles Times has noted, the EPA proposal gives counties with worse smog more time to comply, and California is given additional time because its smog problem is “considered uniquely stubborn.”)

Most of the top potential GOP candidates who spoke at CPAC have made comments over the years questioning or outright denying the scientific consensus that human activities are the driving force behind climate change. But some of them appear to be reconsidering their position, and at this year's conference of dyed-in-the-wool conservatives they largely avoided the issue altogether.

This dynamic was particularly noticeable when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker ducked a question from a seven year-old boy who wanted to know whether Walker “care[s] about climate change.” Other leading contenders, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, were not asked about climate change and didn't bring it up on their own. One potential candidate that did discuss global warming was former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who said that Texas has reduced its carbon emissions “whether you believe in this whole climate change concept or not.”

As Media Matters Senior Fellow Eric Boehlert has explained, it is an open question how the media will cover the climate and environmental views of the GOP candidates running for president. A good place to start might be exploring whether they agree with some of these extreme statements coming out of CPAC.