A Look at the Rhetorical Evolutions of Congress’ Former Climate Deniers
The Center for American Progress’ recent analysis of climate deniers in the 117th Congress found that 18 members of Congress who had previously questioned mainstream climate science now accept the scientific consensus that the climate is changing—and that human activity is primarily responsible. In total, there are 41 fewer climate deniers in Congress today than there were at the start of the 115th Congress. While these declines might appear to represent diminishing headwinds for substantive climate action, they are in part the result of a new set of talking points aimed at delaying action. Many of these officials are insulated from public opinion by a system that prioritizes corporate profit over the people’s will and allows them to choose their constituents through gerrymandering. This column highlights seven former climate deniers and explores how their rhetoric on climate change has evolved.
The climate crisis demands political ambition
There remains a vast gulf in Congress between the slowly fading caucus of climate deniers and those who support the level of climate ambition that scientists say is necessary to avert the worst of the crisis. The most recent report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects a global temperature increase of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels over the next 19 years. Without immediate action, this temperature rise would bring serious food shortages, extreme wildfires, and the end of coral reefs as we know them. Scientists say that averting this outcome requires reductions in greenhouse gas pollution of 45 percent less than 2010 levels by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.
Despite the sense of urgency this should prompt in those who claim to accept the scientific consensus on climate change, a 2019 vote to require the United States to remain party to the Paris Agreement received just three Republican votes in the House of Representatives; then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell even refused to bring the bill to the Senate floor after its passage in the House. Many of the same elected officials who previously echoed Big Oil’s climate change denial have continued to follow their biggest donors’ lead in acknowledging the need to reduce emissions while refusing to address the problem in any science-backed, nonrhetorical manner. Instead, many former deniers continue to downplay any urgency at best and, at worst, advocate total inaction. These varying forms of denial remain a major obstacle to solving the climate crisis.
These rhetorical evolutions take several different forms—exemplified by seven members of Congress who were previously but are no longer classified as climate deniers.
Promoting carbon capture and innovation
Some members of Congress have shifted from denying climate science to relying on innovation and technology as a way of delaying serious climate action. For example, after previously refusing to acknowledge mainstream climate science, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) co-sponsored legislation in 2019 to support carbon capture technologies.
“I don’t necessarily think the climate’s changing, no.” – Sen. Capito, 2014
“I will continue to make the deployment of carbon capture technologies and other innovative tools a priority.” – Sen. Capito, 2019
However, a recent report by the Rhodium Group showed that even in a scenario with requirements and generous incentives for carbon capture and sequestration, the technology is far from a silver bullet in the battle to stave off climate catastrophe. Addressing climate change requires a whole-of-government approach and the deployment of clean energy technologies that move away from fossil fuels entirely. Yet certain members of Congress—such as Sen. Capito—have refused to support approaches that might lead to a reduction in the use of these fuels.
Some former deniers have evolved their beliefs by simultaneously pretending to have never denied climate change in the first place and accusing proponents of serious climate policy of being hysterical. In just two years, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) has shifted from stating that the science on climate change is not settled to claiming that there was never any disagreement on the matter within the political discourse.
“We can’t start off the conversation saying the climate is settled. The right way to have this conversation is to actually listen to what the science says on both sides.” – Rep. Crenshaw, 2018
“There is an interesting political tactic often employed by the Left, and it follows a predictable pattern. First, identify a problem most of us can agree on. Second, elevate the problem to a crisis. Third, propose an extreme solution to said crisis that inevitably results in a massive transfer of power to government authorities. Fourth, watch as conservatives take the bait and vociferously reject the extreme solutions proposed. Fifth and finally, accuse those same conservatives of being too heartless or too stupid to solve the original problem on which we all thought we agreed. This is the pattern we have seen play out with respect to climate change.” – Rep. Crenshaw, 2020
Elected officials, such as Rep. Crenshaw, who pretend that they’ve always supported climate solutions— yet accuse longtime climate advocates of being unreasonable—are engaging in gaslighting on a national level.
‘Whatabouting’ other countries’ records
Many former deniers have shifted from refusing to acknowledge climate science to arguing that inaction is justified by other countries’ continued emissions. This amounts to “whataboutism,” a logical fallacy in which one party attempts to distract blame from their own misdeeds by pointing to those of a separate actor. Some members of Congress, such as Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), have resorted to justifying U.S. emissions by laying the blame on other countries such as China.
“[Human activity] is one of the contributing factors, yes, but to what extent is open to debate and further research.” – Rep. Davis, 2012
“World leaders and climate activists are allowing China to continue to pollute not just their country, but pollute the atmosphere at levels above the U.S., the EU, and others combined.” – Rep. Davis, 2020
Since 1850, the United States has caused 27 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions—twice as much as those of China and India combined. Refusing to take responsibility for that record will lead to an uninhabitable Earth. China and India must set more ambitious targets for climate pollution reductions, but that does not absolve the United States of its responsibility to act. Moreover, such climate action could be an effective way to pressure China and India and serve as a model success in a clean energy transition.
Attacking the Green New Deal
After long refusing to take a stance on climate change, Sen. John Boozman (R-AR) now emphasizes the progress the United States has made on cutting emissions. At the same time, however, the senator has attacked the Green New Deal, a sweeping 2019 policy framework which, among other things, would rapidly shift the United States’ economy to clean energy.
“Now I’m not a scientist but I’m an optometrist … And I’ve said before that there’s nothing scientific about discrediting people who present conflicting evidence and ask reasonable questions.” – Sen. Boozman, 2013
“We have an obligation to cut emissions and move our energy consumption toward renewable sources … The Green New Deal is not going to get us there.” – Sen. Boozman, 2019
As part of an effort to distract from their own record—or lack thereof—on climate change, many former climate deniers have shifted to attacking the Green New Deal. However, criticizing a plan to tackle climate change is not a plan in and of itself. Sen. Boozman is typical of former climate deniers in that he has failed to offer solutions despite acknowledging a theoretical need to act.
Expressing concern of political backlash
Many elected officials are primarily motivated by a desire to remain in office. As illustrated by the remarks of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) at a political conference in 2020, some elected officials have begun to accept that climate denialism is rapidly becoming a politically untenable position.
“I think there are changes in the environment. There are a lot of items to contribute to it.'” – Rep. McCarthy, 2015
“We should be a little nervous … We’ve got to do something different than we’ve done today … What if we show that we can solve [climate change]?” – Rep. McCarthy, 2020
Many voters, especially younger voters, listed climate change as one of their top priorities in the 2020 election—an election in which Republicans lost control of the Senate and the White House and failed to gain a majority in the House. If voters continue to punish climate deniers at the ballot box, their numbers may continue to shrink. And Rep. McCarthy’s proposed solutions still fall far short of what scientists say is needed.
Promoting so-called natural solutions
Led by former President Donald Trump, many one-time climate deniers such as Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) have found new enthusiasm for so-called natural solutions to the problem.
“I assume if [the] climate’s changing, it’s changing in Arkansas, as well as other places. So I did a little research and found out the number of forest fires in Arkansas has actually decreased over the past 20 years … So apparently the climate change isn’t affecting forest fires in my state.” – Rep. Westerman, 2017
“I think we’ll see a good cross-section of legislation that’s aimed at sequestering carbon.” – Rep. Westerman, 2021
Chief among the efforts that Rep. Westerman and others have proposed include an initiative to plant 1 trillion trees in order to sequester carbon. Natural climate solutions are important and could offer significant economic benefits to rural communities, but scientists are clear about the need to reduce pollution, especially from power plants and automobiles. However, the simplest natural solution is protecting and conserving more land—and many previous deniers have supported fossil fuel extraction and industrial timber production. We aren’t going to log our way out of a climate catastrophe.
Promoting the free market
Finally, former climate deniers such as Rep. Tim Burchett (R-TN) have evolved from refusing to acknowledge the problem to refusing to acknowledge the role government should play in the solution. Instead, he and others have argued in favor of free-market solutions.
“Al Gore needs to scrape my dadgum windshield.” – Rep. Burchett, 2018
“The right way to tackle climate change policy is by continuing to remove barriers to innovation, incentivizing more clean energy, and putting forth realistic, free-market solutions driven by the American consumer.” – Rep. Burchett, 2019
Scientists have been clear that free-market solutions will not be nearly sufficient: In fact, climate change represents a failure of the free market because companies can release greenhouse gas pollutants into the atmosphere free of charge. Unless that dynamic is corrected with government policy, there is no market incentive for companies to reduce their emissions to the levels that scientists say is safe.
The American public overwhelmingly supports climate action. Yet many elected officials are insulated from voter accountability as a result of weak campaign finance laws, gerrymandering, and draconian Senate rules. Without legislation such as H.R. 1/S. 1, the For The People Act, these and other members of Congress will continue to be shielded from voters’ demands—and the United States will fail to take action on its biggest national security threat: climate change.
The rhetorical evolution of former climate deniers should not be confused with an acceptance of mainstream climate science. It is clear that preventing the climate crisis from threatening the ability of humans to thrive on Earth requires deep, immediate emissions cuts using every tool in the toolbox. Many of the elected officials discussed above place their faith in markets, technology, carbon capture technologies, or gradual emissions reductions instead of acknowledging that without all of those strategies and more, the world will soon have to contend with increasingly dangerous heat waves, damaging droughts, and devastating hurricanes. This crisis will fall hardest on the most vulnerable parts of society, but no one will be immune from the impacts of a changing climate.
Ari Drennen is an associate director of communications for the Energy and Environment War Room at the Center for American Progress.
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