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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