Just 15 votes — but a subtle and important shift for the GOP

By Jean Chemnick | 01/28/2015 07:27 AM EST

Last week, 15 Senate Republicans abandoned their party’s tried-and-true “I’m not a scientist” stance to back amendments affirming that human emissions are at least partly responsible for global warming.

Last week, 15 Senate Republicans abandoned their party’s tried-and-true "I’m not a scientist" stance to back amendments affirming that human emissions are at least partly responsible for global warming.

The shift in message was subtle, and some political experts said it wasn’t a shift at all. There have always been Republicans who acknowledged that human activity has a hand in climate change, they said, and the two amendments to the Keystone XL oil pipeline bill merely gave them a forum to express it.

"We had a chance to vote, and people cast the votes they believed in," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who voted for the amendments offered by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.). "That’s all it amounted to."


But others noted that Republican Senate leaders evidently saw an upside in giving GOP members the chance to go on the record now, after many have used the "I’m not a scientist" line to studiously avoid doing so for years. Now their votes declared that climate change is real and industrial greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to it.

Those who follow Republican climate messaging say that at least some of the amendment supporters were motivated by political considerations. Seven of the 15 Republicans who voted for one or both of the amendments — and Hoeven himself, who voted against his own amendment for strategic reasons — are up for re-election next year. Several are running in blue and purple states where President Obama won handily in 2012. And Hoeven’s own office has acknowledged that his amendment — which held that man-made emissions are driving climate change without qualifying that impact as "significant" — was intended to give cover to some of his GOP colleagues.

Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), two of the most vulnerable Republicans up for re-election next year, voted for both the Hoeven and the Schatz amendments — the latter of which stated that human emissions were a "significant" climate driver. Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who are also running in swing states, backed the Hoeven language.

David Jenkins, president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, said that the pivot appeared to be calculated.

"It seems like there is sort of this recognition that the Republican message on climate needs to change," he said.

Jenkins saw last week’s votes as part of a continuing evolution in the Republican message on warming — which started with denial that warming of any kind is occurring, moved through noncommittal statements about the role human emissions play, and has now arrived, for some, with an acknowledgement that man-made climate change is real.

"It doesn’t get you to what you would do about it and supporting solutions, but it’s definitely a shift," he said. "And it makes sense, because why would you continue on a stance like that when polling shows that most Americans think it is simply ignoring the facts?"

Several recent polls have shown that a growing number of voters believe that human emissions are having an effect on climate. A recent Yale University survey found that even certain segments of Republican voters hold that view, and back Obama administration moves to contain emissions.

Other GOP strategists said that the votes showed climate change soul-searching by some Republican lawmakers — for better or worse.

"There are about a dozen and a half Senate Republicans who don’t yet have their feet set right on the issue," said GOP strategist Mike McKenna. "They’re not completely comfortable with where they are yet."

These include some members, like Kirk, who feel political pressure to weigh in on warming, he said. And others might be pushed by staff or strategists to leave themselves room to maneuver — though McKenna said this is misguided, because few of their constituents will care how they vote on climate anyway.

But some backers of Hoeven’s amendment — like Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — appear to be trying to carve out a stance on climate change that fits with their own conservative political leanings but that hasn’t emerged yet, McKenna said.

Murkowski, who as Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairwoman is managing the Keystone XL bill on the floor, appeared to summarize her approach to climate change last week.

"So when we talk about climate, I think it’s important to recognize that we have some very serious challenges in front of us, how we address the adaptation and mitigation," she said at a press event on the pipeline bill. "Maybe we have some technology advances that we need to be sharing more, what can be doing in that regard."

But a strong economy will be better equipped to deal with the challenge than one crippled by rising energy prices, she said.

Hoeven’s amendment came one vote shy of success, which all but assures that Democrats will "keep pushing the envelope on these guys" with more climate votes, McKenna said.

Two additional climate change amendments have been filed to the KXL bill and could see votes in the coming days (see related story).

Like coming to terms with rehab?

Environmentalists, meanwhile, said that Republicans have finally realized that climate skepticism comes at a political cost, particularly as they look ahead to a presidential election year in which higher voter turnout by less ideological voters will affect races further down the ticket.

"The fact that so many senators who have been hiding from the issue have to go face the voters in 2016 has really led to this recognition that they need a new message on climate change," said Jeremy Symons of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Symons and Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund Director Heather Taylor-Miesle said the environmental community will not be satisfied with simple statements about climate science. The 15 Republicans who are now on record that human emissions are contributing to warming must follow that with other votes aimed at protecting the Obama administration’s authority to limit emissions, they said — and that is particularly true if they hail from states that favor climate action.

"Nobody’s going to get a free pass because they simply acknowledge the science that is apparent to everyone," said Symons. EDF, which has a strategy of endorsing certain Republicans in down-ballot races, plans to increase its investment in its Defend Our Future Campaign — which sponsors climate-themed campaign ads — in 2016, he said.

Many of the senators who supported the Hoeven amendment have previously backed curbs on EPA authorities. Taylor-Miesle compared their recent votes on the science to the beginning of the drug recovery process, "right before you go into rehab — when you say ‘I might have an issue’ but you haven’t quite made the appointment with the doctor to go in and address it."

"They’re going to have to be more cognizant as they go forward about how they’re voting, period, specifically on these issues," said Taylor-Miesle. If they do not, she said, environmentalists will make sure their constituents know it.

But McKenna said that billionaire climate donor Tom Steyer’s $100 million attempt to make climate change an issue that voters care about in the last election cycle failed, showing how marginal the issue actually is.

"I would argue that climate change played no role in any election anywhere in this cycle," he said. "This is an issue on which you can pretty much do what you want to do, say the right thing irrespective of political considerations, and there’s essentially no repercussions."

Graham ‘comfortable’ with climate science

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who in a previous Congress negotiated a carbon dioxide cap-and-trade bill, said Republicans had been reluctant to embrace the science of man-made climate change precisely because advocates then try to pressure them to accept solutions favored by Democrats, "which I think are very draconian."

"I think that people on my side are really reluctant to embrace how much human activity is causing climate change because our friends on the other side have made it a religion," he said.

Graham, who supported both the Schatz and Hoeven amendments, has sometimes disappointed greens by voting to kill U.S. EPA climate regulations.

In the immediate aftermath of the cap-and-trade bill, which stalled in the Senate in 2010 without ever coming to the floor, he also appeared to have second thoughts about climate science.

But he said yesterday that he is now "comfortable" that human emissions are driving warming.

"I’m not a scientist, but I’m not a doctor," he said. "If I go to 10 doctors and nine out of 10 say you’ve got a problem, I’ve either got to believe the nine or the 10th guy or gal."

"From a Republican Party point of view, if you don’t embrace what seems to be an overwhelming body of scientific evidence, you risk the idea that you’re kind of anti-science," he said. "Here’s what I believe: I believe the Earth is round, I believe that climate change is real, I believe in evolution, and I believe in Jesus."

Reporter Manuel Quiñones contributed.