The Unseriousness of Republicans on Man-Made Climate Change

Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell aren't scientists, but that doesn't stop them from discrediting it.

Jim Young/Reuters

Sometimes the news delivers two simultaneous stories in a way that suggests there's an Intelligent Designer out there and she has an exquisite sense of irony.

During the long weekend, NASA released figures showing that last month was the warmest September since records have been kept, running back to 1880. It also concluded the warmest six-month collective stretch since the start of record-keeping.

Then, on Monday, two prominent Republican members of Congress expressed their continued doubt on the reality of anthropogenic climate change, that is, the idea not only that the climate is warming, but that humans are causing it.

Here's Paul Ryan, at a debate in his home district:

"I don't know the answer to that question," Ryan said. "I don't think science does, either."

.... Ryan has previously questioned the climate scientists' research and data and, on Monday, said that the high costs associated with proposals to fight climate change ignore that "we've had climate change forever." "The benefits do not outweigh the costs," Ryan said.

Meanwhile, here's Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, debating Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky. He'd been previously quoted saying he is "not a scientist"; here's how he responded Monday:

“There’s a bunch of scientists who feel this is a problem and that maybe we can do something about CO2 emissions,” he said. “George Will, the columnist, wrote recently that back in ’70s a lot of scientists thought we were moving towards an ice age.”

Instead, McConnell said “the job of the U.S. Senator from Kentucky is to fight for coal jobs in our state.”

Assigning an opinion to "science," as Ryan does, as though it's a coherent thing, is a little weird. But in this case, insofar as "science" has an opinion, it's clear. A 2013 study found that 97 percent of scientific papers that deal with man-made climate change support its reality. McConnell's move is even slipperier than Ryan's. On the one hand, he says, he's not a scientist, but on the other, the authority he cites to undermine the credibility of scientists is noted fellow non-scientist George F. Will. Besides, you can't impugn the reliability of scientific consensus while also using one's own scientific ignorance as a smokescreen.

The framing of the matter in economic impact is a little more straightforward, but it's also difficult to credit. It suggests a conception of politics in which elected officials are nothing more than robotic technocrats charged with producing the maximum short-term economic benefit from the country, rather than representatives charged with overseeing the welfare of the nation. McConnell isn't an economist, either, but he has strong views about the economy; nor is he a health-provider, but he has ideas about health-care provision. And any economic benefit is short-term: Experts predict grave long-term costs from climate change, even if there is action.

It's not as if facts are really at issue here, but it's important to be plain about what both Ryan and McConnell are doing: willfully contradicting what is known about climate change.

In the August issue of The Atlantic, Charles Mann wrote lucidly about the dangers of overhyping climate change—how it can turn off and alienate skeptics and those in the middle. But this is a much simpler matter. It's not about whether approving the Keystone XL pipeline will hasten the apocalypse; it's about whether there can be agreement on the bedrock facts. What leading Republican figures in Congress are saying is, No.