Is Marco Rubio a Scientist or Not, Man?

The Florida senator's perplexing remarks about man-made global warming, and what they tell us about climate politics and 2016

Marco Rubio, the Florida senator and de facto Republican favorite for 2016, has made his position on scientists clear: He's not one. So he explained in an interview with GQ in November (emphasis added):

GQ: How old do you think the Earth is?

Marco Rubio: I'm not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that's a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I'm not a scientist. I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that.

Rubio later walked back part of that comment, saying he really meant to focus on whether the seven days of creation were literal or allegorical, and that he didn't question the geological evidence of the earth's age. In any case, you could see what he was doing: finding a way to reconcile the literal truth of science with the metaphysical message of the Bible. It's an act familiar to religious people, and it happens to be politically wise as well.

Now, here's what Rubio said last night at a BuzzFeed event in Washington. Ben Smith asked the senator whether he was concerned about the threat of global warming to his home state. Rubio's answer (again, emphasis added):

First of all, the climate's always changing. That's not the fundamental question. The fundamental question is whether man-made activity is what's contributing to it. I understand that people say there's a significant scientific consensus on that issue, but I've actually seen reasonable debate on that principle.

Aha! Leave aside the fact that for all intents and purposes there's no debate on whether man-made global warming is real. What's amazing is that suddenly, Rubio has decided he is qualified to wade into the science and determine whether the matter is settled. Is he a scientist or not, man?

Rubio offered a few other interesting tidbits on environmental policy, so it's worth watching the video above. Basically, he argued that the cost-benefit analysis didn't come out right: New environmental rules would place an undue burden on the American economy, but any unilateral U.S. actions would be too small to have a meaningful impact on global climate change. As he put it, "The United States is a country, it's not a planet."

Comparing Rubio's November comments on the earth's age with last night's on climate offers a couple interesting insights, in addition to his abrupt acquisition of scientific acumen. First, climate change appears even more of a third rail for conservative politicians than evolution and creationism. Rubio was able to split the difference on evolution, at once bowing to the science, nodding to his own faith, and offering a sop to religious conservatives who object to the teaching of evolution (he later explained that parents should be able to teach their children what they want). With global warming, there's no such split: Rubio rejects both environmental policy solutions and the scientific consensus. Case closed.

Assuming that climate politics don't shift drastically in the next four years -- though stranger things have happened -- and the presidential field remains roughly similar, this sets up an interesting dynamic for 2016. In a Republican primary, Rubio might find himself squaring up against New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose state sustained an estimated $29.4 billion in damage during Hurricane Sandy. Christie has said that man-made climate change is real. If Rubio won the GOP primary, he might find himself running against Democrat Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, which saw $42 billion in damage from the same storm.

It's safe to assume they might have a different cost-benefit calculation than Rubio.

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David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers political and global news. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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