WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans in competitive races are treading gingerly around climate change this campaign season, often saying they are not in a good position to make a judgment on the issue, then pivoting quickly to express concern for the environment, the economy or both.
"I am not a scientist," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said numerous times, a response that other members of his party have employed when asked if human activity is causing the earth to warm.
Former Rep. Frank Guinta of New Hampshire, running to reclaim a House seat he once held, says, "I think the science is not complete on this issue."
Senate hopeful Joni Ernst of Iowa, said recently, "I don't know the science behind climate change. ... I can't say one way or another what is the direct impact from whether it's man-made or not." She prefaced her comments by saying she believes in protecting the environment, offering as evidence, "I drive a hybrid car, and my family recycles everything."
Polls routinely find that climate change is far down the list of voter concerns, particularly in an era of slow economic growth.
Yet the issue has come up persistently in the fall campaign, including in debates and interviews as well as political commercials.
Surveys suggest there may be political safety for Republicans in straddling the issue, since doing otherwise could anger conservative GOP voters who deny climate change's existence or offend the majority of the country that says it is an established fact.
A year-old survey by Pew Research showed that only 25 percent of tea party supporters believe global warming is occurring, compared with 67 percent for the nation as a whole. Nationally, 44 percent said the earth is warming mostly because of human activity, a view held by only 9 percent of tea party backers — a group that Republican candidates hope will turn out in large numbers this fall.
More recently, a New York Times poll said 42 percent of Republicans say global warming won't have a serious impact, a view held by 12 percent of Democrats and 22 percent of independents.
Global Climate Change, a WebSite of the nation's space agency, says, "Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position."
But that consensus is hotly disputed by critics, including some office-holders.
One high-profile doubter, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, published a 2012 book, "The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future."
Among Democratic candidates, there is a strong consensus that global warming is a fact.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, running for a new term in oil and gas-producing Louisiana, said during a recent debate, "I do believe our climate is changing, and I do believe humans contribute."
Sen. Mark Udall, another energy-state Democrat in a tough race, says on his campaign website, "Climate change threatens our special way of life in Colorado."
Yet many Republicans in this year's campaign appear highly reluctant to stake out an unequivocal position.
"Well, I am not a scientist," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said last spring.
More recently he expressed no opinion whether human behavior is affecting the climate. Instead, he said in a debate he focuses on solving problems.
"We've spent $350 million to deal with sea level rise; we spent $100 million to deal with protecting our coral reef; we've increased the funding by 45 percent for beach re-nourishment" and spent $880 million on the Everglades, he said.
Rep. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, a physician, likewise avoided taking a definitive position.
"Global temperatures have not risen in 15 years," he said in a debate with Landrieu and Rob Maness, a third candidate.
"There might be climate change, but we are not seeing that reflected in temperatures. We are losing our coastline, but that's relative sea level rise. ... That's related to our levees on our river, taking needed sediment from restoring our coast as well as other factors that cause the land to sink as much as water rising."
McConnell, recently interviewed by The Cincinnati Enquirer, said, "I am not a scientist. All I can tell you is that country after country after country, given a choice between pursuing this goal (of curbing carbon emissions) and their own economic growth, are choosing economic growth." Kentucky is heavy producer of coal, which gives off carbon emissions.
Rep. Cory Gardner, challenging Udall in Colorado, took no position on the existence of global warming in a debate, and said talk of a scientific consensus is itself overrated. It doesn't exist "to the extent that has been reported in the news," he said. "I think there is disagreement as to that."