Climate change isn't caused by industrial greenhouse gas emissions, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said yesterday, citing evidence that Greenland was once green -- and presenting his strongest disavowal of the prevailing scientific view linking human activity to rising temperatures and sea level.
Kirk's comments come ahead of a Senate vote series later this month that Democrats are hoping to use to create political headaches for the new Republican majority, especially embattled moderates like Kirk who are up for re-election next year in traditionally blue states.
While he was a member of the House representing a suburban district north of Chicago, Kirk was one of just eight Republicans to vote for cap-and-trade legislation in 2009. Although he renounced that vote soon after launching his 2010 Senate campaign and has been critical of the Obama administration's climate regulations, Kirk remained supportive of policies to advance clean energy development and did not overtly question the prevailing view of most climate scientists.
That changed yesterday, in a brief exchange with E&E Daily in which Kirk lamented that "political correctness took over climate science," dismissed scientists' view that greenhouse gas emissions are linked to consequences like rising temperatures and said the problem is not one that should be addressed through government policy.
"We had the previous warming period, which was called the global optimum, and the best way to talk about that is when Leif Erickson went west from his home, he discovered a landmass that he called Greenland, because it was," Kirk said after Senate Republicans' first weekly caucus lunch. "And that was called the global optimum, because the planet was much warmer. By calling Greenland 'green land,' we know that the climate has been changing pretty regularly within recorded memory."
Democrats are teeing up a variety of amendments to offer when the Senate later this month takes up legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Among them will be a nonbinding measure designed to put senators "on record" as to whether or not they buy into climate science, said Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and is among the most vocal supporters of aggressive climate regulations.
"Scientists overwhelmingly believe that climate change is real. Unfortunately, we have a majority party here which disagrees with science. And I think it's important for them to go on record," Sanders told reporters yesterday. "Do they believe that climate change is real? Is it caused by human activity? Is it causing devastating problems? And they're going to have to vote yes or no on that."
The Energy and Natural Resources Committee today is scheduled to mark up legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, with a procedural vote on the Senate floor expected Monday. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has pledged an open amendment process that will provide Democrats and Republicans broad latitude to offer amendments, some of which would be substantive while others would offer an opportunity to score political points.
Point-scoring seems the most likely outcome, as there have been some efforts among Republicans to keep the bill relatively clean of extraneous provisions, promising that there will be ample opportunity to discuss other issues separately.
"The majority leader has talked about a series of Democrat gotcha amendments. They will be accompanied by Republican gotcha amendments," Kirk said yesterday.
Kirk said he would easily vote against an amendment such as the one Sanders outlined, based on a reporters' description, and went on to criticize the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an international climate agreement the United States never ratified.
"I actually served as a small part of the U.S. delegation to the Kyoto climate change talks. I have lived and breathed Kyoto," he said. "And Kyoto stands for the principle, as you know, that all developing country emissions don't count. I would say that Mother Nature disagrees with that Kyoto ruling."
Pressed specifically on the link between human activity and climate change, Kirk offered the Greenland observation. In the brief exchange, he also noted that after voting for carbon cap-and-trade legislation in the House that he would not do so in the Senate, and he said that is "not too much" of a problem policymakers should concern themselves with. He then disappeared behind closing elevator doors.
A spokeswoman offered a more measured take in response to a follow-up request for comment.
"Senator Kirk believes that climate change is a long-term problem that deserves a long-term fix -- and doesn't support a politically motivated amendment intended to undermine the Keystone Pipeline and the jobs it would create in the U.S. and Illinois," spokeswoman Danielle Varallo said in an email.
Kirk's comments could be used as political fodder against him as he seeks a second term in 2016.
Kirk is a top Democratic target this election cycle, and he'll be running for re-election in a presidential year in a state that has voted Democratic in every White House election dating back to 1992 -- meaning he could have a tougher time than he did when he won the seat in 2010 by 2 points. Potential Democratic challengers include Reps. Tammy Duckworth, Bill Foster, Cheri Bustos and Mike Quigley, and state Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
Kirk's embrace of arguments popular among climate skeptics also came as a surprise to environmentalists, who long thought the Illinoian was one who they could count as an ally in some situations. In a 2011 interview, Kirk said climate remained a "long-term" concern that should be addressed through alternative energy innovation (ClimateWire, May 17, 2011).
"I think we all hold out hope that there is the old Mark Kirk from the House -- who was really a moderate Republican," said Melinda Pierce, the policy director at the Sierra Club, who said she was caught off-guard by his remarks given his earlier work. "If he's pointing to Viking explorers from the 10th century as a justification for climate denial, does he also believe the world is flat?"
Steve Frenkel, who directs the Midwest office for the Union of Concerned Scientists, agreed that it was surprising to learn of Kirk's comments, but he noted that other lawmakers have questioned the link between human activity and climate change while still supporting policies related to clean energy or environmental protection. Frenkel noted that Kirk has supported renewable energy development -- especially wind, which has had success in Illinois -- and protection of the Great Lakes.
"Politically, it's hard to say why Sen. Kirk would want to question climate change. It's unfortunate that there's any political division on climate science, but obviously that's what we're dealing with. Scientifically, of course, the evidence that climate change is human-induced is clearer than ever," he said in an email yesterday.
"Scientists are as certain that human activities cause climate change as they are that smoking causes lung disease," Frenkel added. "And regardless of what the climate looked like in the past -- or in Greenland -- it's the rapid rate of climate change today that presents the biggest risks to our homes and businesses."