Media Glossing Over Climate Science Denial By GOP “Establishment” Candidates

Rubio Bush Kasich

In recent weeks, media outlets including The New York Times, PolitiFact, and The Hill have failed to recognize that so-called "establishment" Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich have all made remarks about man-made climate change that conflict with the strongly held consensus of the scientific community. While all three candidates have at one point or another acknowledged some human role in climate change, none accept the community's consensus that humans are the primary cause of global warming.

In a January 23 article purporting to explain “where the GOP field stands” on climate change, The Hill reported that Rubio “has said that he believes in the science behind climate change,” Bush “says he believes the science behind climate change and mankind's role in causing it,” and Kasich “acknowledges climate change.” And on February 9 and February 13, respectively, PolitiFact and The Times took issue with Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' statement that no Republican candidate acknowledges that “climate change is real,” arguing, in PolitiFact's words, that both Bush and Kasich have said climate change is “real” and “man-made.” None of these articles noted that Rubio, Bush, and Kasich have all contradicted the scientific consensus by questioning the extent to which humans impact the climate.

For these media outlets, simply establishing that Rubio, Bush, and Kasich acknowledged humans play some role in climate change was sufficient proof that they are not climate science deniers. But the consensus view of the scientific community -- including major scientific institutions like NASA and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -- is that human activities such as burning fossil fuels are the primary cause of global warming. The IPCC has determined with at least 95 percent probability that human activities are the “dominant cause” of climate change, which is equal to the amount of certainty scientists have that cigarettes are deadly.

Rubio came closest to acknowledging this scientific reality during a May 2014 interview on Fox News, in which he said: “There is a majority of scientists that say that global carbon emission by humans causes some changes in the climate.” But in his next breath, he added that “there is no consensus” on how much of climate change “is directly attributable to human carbon emission.” Similarly, in an April 2015 appearance on CBS' Face the Nation, Rubio said: "[T]here's never been a moment where the climate is not changing. The question is what percentage of that -- or what is due to human activity?"

In other media appearances, Rubio has been more overt in his climate science denial, such as when he told ABC News, “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.” That comment earned Rubio a "false" rating on PolitiFact's Truth-O-Meter.

As evidence that Bush believes climate change is “real,” PolitiFact pointed to his July 2015 remark, “Human activity has contributed to it.” The Times cited a more recent remark, from February 2016, in which Bush said: “I think the climate is changing. It is inconceivable to me that five billion people living on this planet don't have an impact on that.” However, neither outlet mentioned other remarks Bush has made that show he “does not acknowledge the scientific consensus that human activity drives climate change,” as National Journal put it. For instance, in May 2015, The Washington Post noted that Bush said of climate change: “I don't think the science is clear on what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural. It's convoluted.” Other newspapers, including the Union Leader and Valley News in New Hampshire, have similarly reported that Bush either questioned the “percentage of human involvement” in climate change or claimed “scientists haven't determined how much of it is attributable to people.”

Bush has even made some remarks that seemed to leave open the possibility that human activity could play no role in climate change, saying in June 2015: “Because the climate is changing, whether men are doing it or not - in the case of the sea level rising in Miami - is kind of irrelevant.” He's also contradicted the upper range of sea level rise projections in the National Climate Assessment -- and the worst case scenario calculated by four Florida counties -- by declaring that “the sea level is not going to rise by six feet. It might, you know, a thousand years from now, who knows, but it's not going to rise in the near term, in the next 30 years or 50 years.”

Finally, in its “fact-check” of Sanders' remarks, The Times highlighted a quote from Kasich that actually shows he does not acknowledge the scientific consensus that human activities are the primary cause of global warming: “I do believe there is climate change, and I think that human beings impact it. But I also don't know to what degree we impact it.” Kasich more directly denied the scientific consensus in September 2015 remarks in New Hampshire, in which he said, “I don't believe that humans are the primary cause of climate change.” And when asked during an August 2015 appearance on NBC's Meet the Press whether he agrees with Pope Francis that climate change is man-made, Kasich claimed that “man absolutely affects the environment,” but there is a “legitimate debate” about “the overall impact.” He also said: “We don't want to destroy people's jobs, based on some theory that is not proven.”

In its piece, PolitiFact also challenged the other portion of Sanders' remark, which was that the GOP candidates refuse to recognize “that we need to transform our energy system” to deal with climate change. But unable to point to climate policies that Bush and Rubio favor, PolitiFact cited Bush's “calls for the repeal or reform” of the Clean Power Plan and Rubio's desire to “get rid of some anti-pollution rules and use the free market” to encourage conservative and efficiency as evidence that they “have offered support for actions to deal with [climate change].”

Hopefully media outlets will more deeply explore how well the candidates' comments square with climate science going forward, particularly in articles that purport to be “fact-checks.” Splitting the GOP field into “outsider” candidates who reject climate science and “establishment” candidates who accept it might make for a compelling media narrative. But it doesn't make for an accurate one.

Image at top via Flickr user Gage Skidmore using a Creative Commons license.