Where 50 political leaders stand on climate policy
Where 50 political leaders stand on climate policy
According to NASA, “The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit, or 0.9 degrees Celsius, since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere. Most of the warming occurred in the past 35 years, with the five warmest years on record taking place since 2010.”
NASA is no outlier. In fact, virtually every major organization in the world dedicated to studying climate science agrees on three main points: Earth’s temperature is rising, human activity has played a large role in that warming, and that without intervention, climate change poses an existential threat—that last part deals with our species’ ability to exist on this planet in the future.
Many American political leaders, however, continue to deny that climate change is real, and that if it is, it can in no way be attributed to human behavior. Other long-term and often outspoken skeptics have softened their stances recently, but only in the past few years as they realized science denial is a losing political issue.
Overwhelming percentages of the country—particularly the young—now want the government to do more as fires, floods, droughts, and other natural disasters continue to increase in both frequency and severity year after year, decade after decade.
The leaders who have begrudgingly accepted the facts, but only with a political gun to their heads, tend to hedge when discussing the issue. They admit in the first part of the sentence that global warming is a threat and then rail against proposed regulations, reforms, and emissions controls as radical or ideologically-driven, often while going out of their way to ridicule the most-promising alternatives to fossil fuels, like wind and solar energy.
Using news reports, excerpts from speeches, public statements, press releases, and report cards issued by environmental organizations that grade legislators on climate change voting, Stacker profiled 50 important, influential, and often-controversial politicians and their stances on global warming.
Here’s a look at the political leaders who trust the assessment of an almost totally unified scientific community and the mountains of empirical evidence that back it up; those who continue to insist it’s all a conspiracy; and those who cynically attempt to straddle the issue in an effort to land on the right side of history, without upsetting their base and risking their jobs.
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When asked about the role of climate change during a recent visit to California in the wake of historically-devastating wildfires, President Trump opined that the climate “will start getting cooler, you just watch.” When confronted with the fact that no science exists to back up that sentiment, the president responded, “I don’t think the science knows.” Trump campaigned largely on expanding fossil fuels and removing environmental protections designed to mitigate global warming—and he has mostly delivered on those promises.
In response to the same wildfires, Trump’s Democratic rival Joe Biden recently called the president a “climate arsonist” for his long record of global warming denial, although Trump has repeatedly waffled back and forth on whether or not climate science is a “hoax.” Biden has put climate change at the forefront of his campaign as an immediate and existential threat, weaving the issue directly into his jobs, economy, civil rights, and national security platforms.
It’s difficult to tell what Vice President Mike Pence actually believes about climate change or any other big issue, for that matter, because his position, naturally, compels him to spend much of his time parroting the president. His words and his record, however, precede his current occupation. As a governor and congressman, Pence refused to implement President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, called global warming a “myth,” supported the Keystone Pipeline, and voted twice against bills limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
Like Pence, Kamala Harris’ position as Joe Biden’s running mate boxes her closely into the positions espoused from the top of the ticket, but also like Pence, she has a prior record to examine. Harris opposed expansions by Chevron and other fossil fuel giants when she was the attorney general of California, where the impact of climate change is among the starkest in the country. As a senator representing the same state, she opposed the dismantling of environmental regulations, and when she was the district attorney of San Francisco, she created an environmental justice commission.
In 2015, GOP Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was on the record as saying, “The scientific evidence doesn’t support global warming,” according to NPR. By 2019, that position had evolved to “the data are mixed.” In keeping with a longstanding conservative villainization of science and academia, Cruz has publicly and repeatedly alluded—without citing any evidence—to a wide-ranging conspiracy by the scientific community to intentionally misrepresent the data and mislead the public.
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Few politicians have done more to steer climate change toward a position of prominence in the Democratic Party than Bernie Sanders. The Independent senator from Vermont and repeat contender for the Democratic presidential nomination has been consistent in both his record and his rhetoric dating back well over a decade. He incorporated the Green New Deal as a central component of his most-recent presidential primary campaign.
The 2016 GOP presidential candidate and current Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson is on the record as saying he does not believe that climate change is real—evolution either, for that matter. When asked about it, he generally defaults to a common denier’s hedge: Sure, the climate is changing, but it’s never not been changing. That's technically a true statement, but one that conveniently omits the settled science of heavy human industry as an aggravating factor in global warming.
Like fellow progressive firebrand Bernie Sanders, Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been consistent in her messaging that climate change is the most pressing threat of our time. While she rose to national prominence as a warrior for financial reform in the wake of the 2008 recession, she quickly incorporated climate change into her overarching platforms of social and economic justice. Her voting record has been in line with her language throughout.
Former GOP Gov. Nikki Haley served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2017-2018. She broke with President Trump and much of the GOP leadership in acknowledging that climate change is indeed real, but she also oversaw one of America’s greatest leaps backward on global warming. As the chief diplomat to the U.N. she shepherded the United States out of the landmark Paris Climate Accord under the direction of President Trump.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has been a consistently-reliable vote for the progressive environmental agenda since New York first sent him to the upper chamber in 1998. Although he sometimes took criticism from the left for not being vocal enough on global warming, Schumer became a far more prominent voice on the issue after his home state was ravaged by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
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Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is straddling the fence on the issue of climate change, only recently having acknowledged that the phenomenon is even real, while still falling back on standard conservative talking points about environmental protections being liberal power-grabs that will destroy the economy. Rejecting most efforts to enact reforms and curb emissions, Rubio has used familiar language like “global elites and American leftists” when referring to scientists, academics, and lawmakers pushing for change. His recent conversion to even admitting that the temperature is rising came only after science denial went out of vogue in Florida, one of the states most vulnerable to already-rising waters.
Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi has vowed that climate change will play a major and early role in the agenda Democrats put forward in 2021 should they keep the House and win the Senate and the White House. The California congresswoman has cited the catastrophic fires in her home state as evidence of the need for urgency. She shepherded sweeping climate legislation, that has embraced much of the progressive Green New Deal agenda, through the House.
GOP Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s longtime denial of global warming appears to be rooted mostly in his firm distrust of science and academia, whose communities he takes for granted as being part of a dark and coordinated conspiracy to sell global warming to a gullible public. He has stated that climate change “may or may not be true, but they’re making up their facts to fit their conclusions.”
Rand Paul recently instigated a back-and-forth climate science Twitter beef with progressive firebrand, unlikely Democratic congresswoman, and favorite GOP boogeyman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, known informally by both sides as AOC. She is the chief architect of the Green New Deal and the most visible face of the young, liberal wing of the party that counts climate change among its most pressing priorities.
In February, Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy unveiled a modest conservative agenda consisting of only the narrowest proposals, which were supposed to represent the GOP’s emerging platform on combating climate change. Although emaciated in terms of actual reforms, the move was designed to speak to younger voters, who are disproportionately concerned with the issue, and to separate the Republicans from Democratic environmental proposals that they deem radical. McCarthy immediately received blowback from his own party, many of whom were in leadership positions, who did not want the GOP brand associated with an acknowledgement of climate change during an election year.
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In September 2019, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker unveiled an ambitious $3 trillion plan to combat climate change and achieve 100% carbon-free electricity by as early as 2020. Having announced his candidacy to become the Democratic presidential nominee, the move positioned Booker as a leading voice on global warming in the runup to the primary elections—but it was not just window dressing. The plan took actions that Booker had voted for and promoted for years and scaled it up to a national platform.
A familiar and influential GOP senator, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham is one of the rare Republicans who not only acknowledges that climate change is a real and pressing threat, but who publicly challenged President Trump “to look at the science, admit that climate change is real and come up with solutions …” He finished that sentence, however, with a common have-it-both-ways hedge—attacking the Green New Deal and other proposed reforms as radical and potentially disastrous, without suggesting any alternatives of his own.
Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg quickly rose to national prominence, performed well as a presidential primary candidate, and is widely considered a rising star in the Democratic Party. He’s used his national platform to push climate change as the defining challenge of this generation, but even when he was still an obscure local politician, he worked to change attitudes and policies on global warming as a small-town mayor in a red state where the coal industry wields significant influence.
A political fixture in both the nation and Kentucky for decades, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is the GOP’s most influential political powerbroker in the Congress. A longtime ally of the coal industry that dominated his state for generations, McConnell held out until 2019 before finally conceding that climate change is both real and at least partially manmade. Following standard operating procedure, however, he immediately shot down all existing reform proposals as radical leftist overreach before forcing a procedural Senate vote to get the Democrats on record regarding the Green New Deal, which he called “nonsense.”
California Rep. Adam Schiff saw his profile rise when he played a key role in the impeachment of President Trump. Since he took office in 2001, Schiff has consistently voted for progressive environmental ideals and in 2019, he launched an investigation into the alleged suppression of expert climate change testimony by the Trump administration.
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Senator Susan Collins of Maine was the only Republican to join 26 Democrats in signing a statement calling for increased federal action on the imminent threat of climate change. Collins, who is facing a tough reelection campaign in November, has long positioned herself as a moderate and a maverick willing to buck her party and reach across the aisle, but that persona has been under attack since her controversial vote to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Although her environmental voting record is barely lukewarm, she’s certainly a GOP outlier. According to Bloomberg Law, "her 61% lifetime score by the League of Conservation Voters makes her easily the greenest Republican in the Senate.”
Like Susan Collins in the GOP, Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has earned a reputation as a lawmaker who is willing to break party ranks and vote with Republicans, which he frequently does on key issues like abortion, gun control, and judicial and Cabinet appointments. A current senator and former governor of a reliably-red coal state, Manchin has only a 49% lifetime voting score from the League of Conservation Voters, nearly 30 points lower than the #2 Democrat. If Collins is the greenest Republican in the Senate, Manchin is the least-green Democrat.
Tim Scott is the Republican Party’s only African American senator and was only the seventh Black person ever to be elected to the Senate from either party—that tally has since increased to 10 thanks to the addition of William “Mo” Cowan, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris. The first African American senator from a Southern state since Reconstruction, the South Carolina lawmaker’s record is among the Senate’s most staunchly anti-environment and staunchly pro-energy industry. Scott was a vocal proponent of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo gained a place in the national spotlight through his daily briefings on the coronavirus when the Empire State was the epicenter of the pandemic. Less famously, he’s been one of the most vocal proponents of environmental reform—and he’s now also one of the most consequential. In July 2019, Cuomo signed some of the country’s most sweeping climate change legislation into law in New York and by January 2020, he declared climate change the challenge of our time and pushed for a $3 billion bond act to fund green energy infrastructure in the state.
The Republican leadership of Florida—which global warming is expected to hit first and worst—made a dramatic U-turn regarding its collective stance on climate change when Gov. Ron DeSantis took office. With the exception of the House Speaker, every prominent GOP Florida lawmaker has now acknowledged that climate change is a real and existential threat. DeSantis, a Republican, set a new tone from the very top shortly after taking office in 2019 and the state GOP largely fell in line, representing a clear break from the Gov. Rick Scott era that came before.
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Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar is a founding member of the group of young minority women elected to Congress in 2018 known as “The Squad.” Also like AOC, she’s a common target of the GOP’s ire. An avowed progressive, Omar is one of the first two Muslim women ever elected to Congress—the other is fellow Squad member Rashida Tlaib, also elected in 2018, the first woman of color to hold elective office from Minnesota, and the Senate’s first African-born naturalized member. Climate justice has been a central platform in her campaign and career from the beginning, and she’s on record as fully supporting the Green New Deal.
Like fellow Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Rick Scott recently and begrudgingly conceded that global warming is real, but also like Rubio, he at the same time remains staunchly opposed to reigning in the burning of fossil fuels, the chief contributor to climate change. Before Scott was elected to the Senate in 2018, he was the governor of Florida, and his tenure represented the pinnacle of science denial in what is probably America’s most vulnerable state. Scott’s go-to response when asked about global warming was to reply that he is not a scientist—he actually banned state agencies from using the words “climate change.”
Democratic rising star Beto O’Rourke gave Ted Cruz a run for his money in the 2018 midterm elections, a moment that revealed just how close Texas is to coming within reach of Democratic control. He then ran in the Democratic presidential primary, where he was the very first candidate to present a detailed climate-centric platform.
Although she holds a lifetime score of just 18% from the League of Conservation Voters, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has emerged recently as an audible voice for environmental reforms, a rarity among Republicans—particularly one from a deep red conservative oil state that has voted Republican in every single election in its entire history except for one. In 2019, she partnered up with none other than West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin to press for action on curtailing global warming.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar made a legitimate run to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020, positioning herself as a rising star and a national figure in the party. She quickly made climate change a key issue of her campaign—and she had the decade-plus-old policy bona fides to back up the talk. She began introducing legislation to combat global warming just a few months after taking office in 2007.
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Unlike some of his savvier GOP colleagues who have publicly adopted the language of climate change acceptance while continuing to vote as they always have, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is holding out to the bitter end. Despite the ravages that storms like 2017’s Hurricane Harvey continue to visit upon his state, Abbott still refuses even to say whether he believes man-made climate change is behind Texas’s changing weather—he often defaults to the Rick Scott cop-out of saying that he can’t answer because he’s “not a scientist.” In 2019, a group of concerned scientists in Texas offered—in vain ultimately—to brief the governor on the issues and lay out potential solutions.
Texas Democrat Julián Castro left the crowded field of primary presidential candidates early in 2020 and endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose environmental views track closely with his own. As President Barack Obama’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Castro commonly cited the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters as one of the biggest threats facing the country. Before that, as the mayor of San Antonio, he worked to move the city’s electric supply away from coal and toward renewable energy.
U.S. House of Representatives Minority Whip Steve Scalise, who represents Louisiana’s 1st District, was nearly killed by a gunman during a congressional baseball game in 2017. Although his Gulf Coast state is among the most vulnerable in America to the effects of climate change, he remains a climate science denier whose standard answer to questions about global warming is the tried-and-true conservative boilerplate response that the Earth’s temperature is always in flux and that this era is no different.
Democratic Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth lost both her legs fighting in Iraq. She has a 90% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, which points out her history of crafting pro-environmental policy initiatives, her strong voting record, and the pro-environment policies she championed dating back to her time as a Congressional representative.
Republican Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton is an ardent and avowed denier of climate change. He has long suggested not a move to clean, renewable energy, but the building of more nuclear power plants and lower-emission coal plants. He recently wrote a scathing critique of the Green New Deal, calling it “a death sentence for America’s families.”
Billionaire businessman and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is an interparty shapeshifter who most recently launched a highly-publicized, hugely-expensive, and short-lived bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. His most prominent platform planks were his twin passions of gun control and climate change. He put mountains of money where his mouth was for years on both, including the investment of hundreds of millions of his own dollars into private climate change initiatives.
Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst was sent to Washington by residents of a state that has been battered in recent years by dangerous warming-fueled weather. It includes everything from epic floods and endless droughts to extended heat waves and hurricane-force “derecho” storms. Even so, Ernst continues to deny the connection and insists to this day that there is no evidence to connect her state’s erratic weather with man-made global warming.
Congressional “Squad” member Rashida Tlaib is a House representative from Michigan and one of the staunchest environmental justice advocates in American politics. The first Palestinian American in Congress, Tlaib made a name for herself in the Michigan House of Representatives when she fought the conservative energy tycoon Koch brothers over petroleum coke pollution that had long been the bane of Detroit.
Many pundits cite Republican Cory Gardner’s Colorado Senate seat as one of the most vulnerable to being flipped by Democrats in 2020. Part of the reason is that as a candidate, he campaigned as a different kind of Republican who would protect Colorado’s environment and serve as a national leader on climate change, but he frequently failed to walk the walk. He voted against environmental interests 85% of the time, voted to block limits on carbon emissions five times, and repeatedly voted to protect fossil fuel subsidies and to discredit and undermine scientific reports.
If Cory Gardner is voted out of office on Nov. 3, it will have been former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper who flipped his Senate seat. In the private sector, Hickenlooper put his scientific academic credentials to work for the energy industry, but those ties proved thin when he became governor. His tenure included the strictest methane-emissions controls in America, although he is on the record as not supporting the Green New Deal.
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Like Cory Gardner, Democrats are salivating at the very likely prospect of flipping the Arizona Senate seat currently occupied by Republican Martha McSally, an Air Force veteran who stands as the first woman to fly a combat mission and the first to command a squadron. In 2019, Arizona was devastated by historic and devastating wildfires, as well as an extension of its monsoon storm season. McSally was widely criticized for denying a link between climate change and her state's erratic weather, for taking enormous campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry, and for being willing to concede only that man-made global warming was “likely” a real phenomenon.
Democratic New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has earned a lifetime score of 95% from the League of Conservation Voters after voting with environmentalists 100% of the time since 2014. A member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Gillibrand put forward an ambitious plan during her Democratic presidential primary run that called for net zero carbon emissions in just 10 years.
Alabama congressional Rep. Mo Brooks served as an unfortunate caricature for the concept of science denial in American government when he stumbled through a 2018 congressional committee hearing while making ridiculous and now-famous claims, including the idea that beach erosion, not global warming, is responsible for rising seas, and that Arctic ice sheets are growing larger, not smaller. The remark that earned the most derision, however, was the one where Brooks suggested sea levels were rising because too many rocks were falling into the ocean “because now you have less space in those oceans, because the bottom is moving up.” The evidence he cited to back up his claims was that he has a NASA base in his district.
Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro is not only a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas, but the identical twin brother of former San Antonio mayor and 2020 Democratic presidential primary candidate Julián Castro. They aren’t the same in just physical appearance—Joaquin Castro is also remarkably similar to his brother in terms of climate change as a top political priority. He has earned a 95% lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters.
GOP Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt continues to ignore the connection between a warming planet and human activity. He voted against a 2015 Senate resolution that stated “climate change is real and caused by human activity and that Congress needs to take action to cut carbon pollution.” He is also on the record as saying, “There isn’t any real science to say we are altering the climate path of the earth.”
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Massive, deadly, and historic wildfires have put California Gov. Gavin Newsom at the forefront of America’s climate debate, which he has long believed shouldn’t be a debate at all. A longtime proponent of environmental reform, Newsom recently summed it up neatly by saying, “If you do not believe in science, I hope you believe observed reality. The hots are getting a lot hotter and the wets are getting a lot wetter. The science is absolute. The data is self-evident.”
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan from Ohio has repeatedly called for action to bring America to a carbon-neutral status by 2050. The Democrat has consistently made the connection between a massive national investment in green infrastructure and an influx of good, sustainable, new economy green jobs. He’s on the record as saying, “I am tired of just hearing about how we need to reduce climate change, it is time to start talking about how we are going to reverse it.”
Elected in 2012, Hawaii Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was the first Hindu American and the first Samoan American elected to Congress. She gained national prominence during her run for the Democratic nomination for the presidency before she dropped out and endorsed Joe Biden. An Iraq War veteran, Gabbard’s record has been consistently one of voting for renewable energy, voting against the fossil fuel industry, and voting for reduced carbon emissions in the pursuit of reversing the trend of global warming.
Throughout much of the 21st century, longtime Republican Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley—first elected in 1980—rarely strayed from the standard “I am not a scientist” and “the climate is always changing” dodges that became second-nature talking points to so many others in his party. In voting against the Green New Deal in 2019, Grassley released a statement proving that although his stance and voting on the issue hasn’t changed, his publicly-stated logic has. He has now evolved into another common line of reasoning: Even if global warming is real, it’s the fault of polluter nations like China and therefore the United States doesn’t need to institute significant environmental reforms.
Although he’s no longer active in politics, it’s impossible to discuss political figures influencing climate policy without mentioning former Vice President Al Gore, whose pioneering recognition of global warming as a “climate crisis” goes back to the 1980s when it was still largely a back-bench issue mostly relegated to the realm of policy wonks and scientists. The 2006 release of the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” which chronicled Gore’s mission to bring the climate issue to the forefront of the American consciousness, was a watershed moment for the climate debate, and, more than any other individual moment, baked global warming into the DNA of the Democratic Party. The fact that Bill Clinton’s vice president was the central figure sent many Republicans fleeing in the other direction, denying climate science on political affiliation more than on facts and evidence—and the country and the world are still dealing with the repercussions today.
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