Minnesota Republicans change their tone on climate change

Last day of legislative session in the MN House
Republicans in Minnesota and elsewhere are softening their rhetoric about the science behind climate change.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

When the Republican-controlled Minnesota House debated an energy bill earlier this year, Democrats offered an amendment that would have had the Legislature state on the record that climate change is real and caused by human activity.

The amendment failed, but the debate revealed how a national trend among Republicans is playing out in Minnesota: As public opinion on climate change shifts, the ways Republicans are talking about it are too.

In 2013, for example, state Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen took to the floor of the House floor to denounce arguments that climate change is linked to humans.

"There's more and more evidence coming that it's just a complete United Nations fraud and lie," said Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe. "The facts show that in the last 16 years there has been no global warming."

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This year, Gruenhagen softened his tone during the debate over the amendment to the energy bill. When House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, asked Gruenhagen if he believed climate change is caused by people, the Republican legislator said he would defer to researchers he trusts.

"Representative Thissen, I believe there's eminently qualified scientists who disagree with that comment, and I tend to agree with those scientists," Gruenhagen said.

Like most House Republicans, Gruenhagen voted against the amendment. Republicans said it was a political ploy by the DFL to put the GOP on the spot. Its failure had no bearing on the fact that Gov. Mark Dayton ultimately signed the energy bill into law.

Anyone who thinks it sounds like Gruenhagen has changed the way he talks about climate change is not imagining things. In Minnesota and around the nation some Republicans are softening their rhetoric about the science behind climate change. Instead of stating their own disbelief in human-caused climate change, they cite a small minority of skeptical scientists.

Mike McKenna, a Republican political consultant who has noticed the trend, said the line helps GOP politicians appeal to a variety of voters.

"I think there's been a slice from the center to the right of elected officials who are looking to hedge their bets a little bit," McKenna said.

Some recent surveys show most Americans think climate change is happening and something should be done about it. A poll conducted by the New York Times, Stanford University and the non-partisan environmental policy group Resources for the Future shows half of Republicans want the government to address climate change. It also shows that nearly half of Republicans would vote for a candidate who supports action to curb climate change.

McKenna said he doesn't believe such polls are the reason Republican politicians are using different language.

Even Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a major coal-producing state, has tried to walk a careful line when asked whether he thinks climate change is real.

"We could debate this forever," McConnell said last year, during a tough re-election campaign. "In the 1970s, we were concerned the ice age was coming. I'm not a scientist. I'm interested in protecting Kentucky's economy."

Such rhetorical caution doesn't get politicians far, said Jon Krosnick, a political science professor at Stanford University. In the New York Times poll, Krosnick measured how various climate change talking points play with voters.

"The 'I am not a scientist' statement also was a turnoff for people," Krosnick said. "There was nothing gained."

McKenna, the GOP political consultant, called the phrase "the dumbest talking point in the history of mankind."

He notes that legislators with no science background vote on science policy all the time.

"To say that I'm not a scientist is essentially to disqualify yourself from the conversation right away," McKenna said. "In a democracy, you don't have to be an expert to have a thought, an opinion, to have a belief about things."

For his part, Gruenhagen said his views on climate change remain the same. But he added that he does support some regulations to protect water and the environment.

As for his brief comments during floor debate, Gruenhagen said he didn't want to distract legislators from their main job of passing the energy and jobs bill.