“Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, a Republican who is fighting a Democratic challenge from former Gov. Charlie Crist, was asked by The Miami Herald if he believes climate change is significantly affecting the weather. “Well, I’m not a scientist,” he said.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is locked in a tight re-election race, was asked this month by The Cincinnati Enquirer if he believes that climate change is a problem. “I’m not a scientist,” he said.
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House Speaker John A. Boehner, when asked by reporters if climate change will play a role in the Republican agenda, came up with a now-familiar formulation. “I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change,” he said.
“I’m not a scientist,” or a close variation, has become the go-to talking point for Republicans questioned about climate change in the 2014 campaigns. In the past, many Republican candidates questioned or denied the science of climate change, but polls show that a majority of Americans accept it — and support government policies to mitigate it — making the Republican position increasingly challenging ahead of the 2016 presidential elections.
“It’s got to be the dumbest answer I’ve ever heard,” said Michael McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist who has advised House Republicans and conservative political advocacy groups on energy and climate change messaging. “Using that logic would disqualify politicians from voting on anything. Most politicians aren’t scientists, but they vote on science policy. They have opinions on Ebola, but they’re not epidemiologists. They shape highway and infrastructure laws, but they’re not engineers.”
Jon A. Krosnick, who conducts polls on public attitudes on climate change at Stanford, finds the phrase perplexing. “What’s odd about this ‘I’m not a scientist’ line is that there’s nothing in the data we’ve seen to suggest that this helps a candidate,” Mr. Krosnick said. “We can’t find a single state where the majority of voters are skeptical. To say, ‘I’m not a scientist’ is like saying, ‘I’m not a parakeet.’ Everyone knows that it just means, ‘I’m not going to talk about this.’ ”
But Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said that while debate moderators and editorial boards may continue to press the climate change question, the issue does not resonate with voters. He pointed to a Pew Research Center poll showing that Americans rank climate change near the bottom of policy concerns.
“It is very difficult to find an issue that voters place lower on the list than climate change,” Mr. Ayres said. “It vies with gay marriage and campaign finance reform as the least important issue. Most voters care about jobs, economic growth, health care and immigration.”
For now, “I’m not a scientist” is what one party adviser calls “a temporary Band-Aid” — a way to avoid being called a climate change denier but also to sidestep a dilemma. The reality of campaigning is that a politician who acknowledges that burning coal and oil contributes to global warming must offer a solution, which most policy experts say should be taxing or regulating carbon pollution and increasing government spending on alternative energy. But those ideas are anathema to influential conservative donors like the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch and the advocacy group they support, Americans for Prosperity.
Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, said his group intends to aggressively work against Republicans who support a carbon tax or regulations in the 2016 presidential primary campaigns. “They would be at a severe disadvantage in the Republican nomination process,” Mr. Phillips said. “We would absolutely make that a crucial issue.”
In the meantime, climate change has come up this year in at least 10 debates in Senate and governor’s races — including those in Florida, New Hampshire, Colorado, Iowa and Kentucky — forcing Republicans to respond to a growing number of questions about the issue. In 2012, President Obama and Mitt Romney never once mentioned climate change in their three debates.
All the Republican presidential candidates that year but one — Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former governor of Utah — questioned or denied human-caused climate change. Republican strategists at the time saw that position as essential to winning support from the conservative base and inconsequential in influencing swing voters in the general election.
Since then polls show that the political landscape has changed. A 2013 survey by USA Today and Stanford University found that 71 percent of Americans say they are already seeing the results of climate change, and 55 percent support limiting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Mr. Krosnick of Stanford analyzed polls in 46 states conducted between 2006 and 2013 and found that in every state surveyed, at least 75 percent of the population acknowledged the existence of climate change, and at least 67 percent said the government should limit greenhouse gas emissions.
One result is that a cadre of Republican staffers and advisers, most under the age of 40, have started pushing their bosses to find a way to address the issue.
“The general dialogue has been, ‘We have to do something about this,’ ” said one Republican adviser who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly. “We have to be less head-in-the-sand and acknowledge we are losing public opinion on this issue.”
While the politicians debate, the scientific evidence linking weather extremes to climate change continues to mount. Earlier this year, the National Climate Assessment, a study by 13 federal agencies, detailed the ways in which climate change caused by burning coal and oil is threatening the American landscape, from rising sea levels in Florida to more wildfires in Colorado to more devastating droughts across the Southwest. Major corporations, including longtime Republican donors like ExxonMobil, Walmart and Coca-Cola, have acknowledged the science of human-caused climate change and are planning for future taxes or regulations on carbon pollution.
For Mr. McKenna, the energy lobbyist and Republican adviser, the political future is clear. “We’re going to keep getting this question until we nail down a hard answer,” he said.
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