Recently, the Washington Post reported new data showing something most of us already sense: that increased polarization on Capitol Hill is due to the way the Republican Party has lurched to the right. The authors of the study use Senator John McCain to illustrate the point. McCain’s political odyssey is, in some dismaying sense, close to my own heart, since it highlights the Republican turn against science.
As unlikely as it might seem today, in the first half of the twentieth century the Republicans were the party that most strongly supported scientific work, as they recognized the diverse ways in which it could undergird economic activity and national security. The Democrats were more dubious, tending to see science as elitist and worrying that new federal agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health would concentrate resources in elite East Coast universities.
In recent decades, of course, the Republicans have lurched rightward on many topics and now regularly attack scientific findings that threaten their political platforms. In the 1980s, they generally questioned evidence of acid rain; in the 1990s, they went after ozone science; and in this century, they have launched fierce attacks not just on climate science, but in the most personal fashion imaginable on climate scientists.
While Senator McCain didn’t go directly down the path of attacking science, he, too, shifted in disturbing ways. After all, with Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, he had been a co-sponsor of the Climate Stewardship Acts of 2003, 2005, and 2007, which called for a mandatory cap-and-trade system to control greenhouse gas emissions. These were at the time endorsed by many Democrats and most environmental groups. By 2010, however, he was retreating fast from support for his own bill and insisting that he had never backed capping carbon emissions “at a certain level.” He now calls for increased offshore oil and gas drilling,claims that important aspects of energy policy should be left to state and local governments, and has criticized both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry for framing climate change as a national security issue — a position that the Pentagon itself endorses.
Still, compared to many of his colleagues, McCain looks like a moderate. They have dismissed climate change as a fraud and a hoax, while conducting McCarthy-esque inquiries into the research of leading climate scientists. Many of them attack climate science because they fear it will be used as an excuse to expand the reach of government.
In a hearing at which I testified last month, Republican members of the Committee on Natural Resources denounced a wide range of scientific investigations related to the enforcement of existing environmental laws as “government science.” And this, they alleged, meant it was, by definition, corrupt, politically driven, and lacking in accountability. The particular science under attack involved work done by, or on behalf of, federal agencies like the National Parks Service, but climate science came in for its share of insults as well.