Throughout 2014, climate news thrummed in the background of front-burner crises such as Ebola and ISIS. The Pentagon called global warming an immediate security threat. The National Climate Assessment said it is already doing major damage and served up a litany of calamities expected across the land. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the average global temperatures for April, May, June, August, September and October were the highest for those months on record.
In response, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked a dozen of the state’s top elected officials and the director of the agency tasked with the state’s environment whether they believe the globe is warming, and whether they think pollution caused by human activity is a cause.
(The vast majority of climate scientists agree that the answer to each of those questions is yes, although some are more emphatic than others. Skeptics ascribe the consensus to researchers’ desire to keep the grant pipeline flowing.)
Several officials didn’t respond to repeated calls or emails from the AJC. Among those who did, some said they’re not convinced the climate is changing; others said it’s not their problem; yet others said it’s happening but humans aren’t necessarily a cause. None voiced acceptance of proposed federal mandates that would reduce the nation’s output of greenhouse gasses.
The AJC’s two questions went unanswered by the office of Georgia’s new senator-elect, David Perdue. During his election campaign, Perdue made reference in a press release to what he called his opponent’s “job-killing” stance “to ‘act now’ on climate change.”
Sen. Johnny Isakson didn’t directly address the questions but said in a statement that the U.S. should reduce emissions, adding that that’s why he supports nuclear energy. “I also believe it is in our nation’s geopolitical and security interests to develop reduced emissions technologies so that we stop purchasing energy from dictatorial regimes such as Iran and Venezuela that seek to do us harm,” he said.
‘Definitely NOT settled’
In the U.S. House, Georgia is losing its two representatives on the Energy and Commerce Committee. Republican Phil Gingrey gave up his seat to run unsuccessfully for the Senate seat eventually won by Perdue. He will be replaced by Republican Barry Loudermilk. And Democratic incumbent John Barrow lost to Republican Rick Allen.
Allen vehemently rejected the idea that warming is an established fact. “The science if definitely NOT settled,” he said in an email. “Limiting debate to one side is not the same as being conclusive. …
“I am not convinced and I am certainly not ready to destroy jobs and whole industry sectors in order to tax industries liberals don’t like and send the money to sectors that they do like.”
Loudermilk struck similar themes. “I believe that climate change is a function of nature; the climate has been changing as long as the Earth has existed,” he said.
“We absolutely should be good stewards of the planet, and I am very much opposed to reckless pollution and disregard for the environment, but I also know that some politicians and bureaucrats believe in whatever theory gives them an opportunity to take money from the energy sector and spend it themselves in the name of saving the planet.”
At the state level, Georgia’s top official deferred to leaders in Washington. “This is more of a national and international policy issue,” said Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal, who appoints the board responsible for Georgia’s environmental stewardship. “Not one where we should or would weigh in.”
Consistent with that reticence, in September Deal passed on an opportunity to criticize the EPA’s current effort to curb power plant emissions. Fifteen Republican governors signed a letter criticizing proposed carbon emissions limits, but Deal was not among them.
The Department of Natural Resources’ chairman, Philip A. Wilheit, Jr., and the director of the DNR’s Environmental Protection Division, Judson Turner, did not return calls from the AJC on the subject of climate change. Neither did the chairman of the Public Service Commission, Chuck Eaton, which oversees much of the work of the state’s energy utilities.
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, provided a written statement.
“While some are eager to proclaim that human-caused climate change is ‘settled science,’ there are many others who remain skeptical,” Ralston’s statement read. “Claiming that the debate is over helps advance a particular agenda and disregards the fact that the only provable result of policies proposed as a result is the export of American jobs to countries with abysmal environmental practices.”
‘Humans are contributing’
To support his view, Ralston cited Dr. Judith Curry of Georgia Tech. Curry believes the Earth is warming — except for a current “pause” — and told the AJC in an interview that, among scientists, “everybody agrees that humans are contributing to warming.” However, she chastises other climate scientists for overstating how much humans are to blame and the certainty of likely consequences.
Jack Murphy, a Republican of Cumming, who chairs the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee and sits on the powerful Rules and Appropriations committees, was skeptical that global temps are rising.
“I still haven’t seen anything that’s positive proof,” Murphy said. “Until I do, I’m going to have to say, well, if it is changing, it’s changing at such a minute stage that I don’t know what the long term effects are going to be.”
Among the utilities overseen by the panel Murphy chairs are Georgia Power and its parent company, Southern Company, which feel the pinch when the government tightens pollution rules. They, their political committees and their employees donated more than $115,000 to Gov. Deal, Speaker Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in the last four years.
Georgia Power and its employee PAC gave to politicians and parties alike, with at least $60,000 going to the Republican Party in the 2014 cycle, at least $10,000 to the Georgia House Republican Trust, and at least $10,000 to the Democratic Party. (The companies are not solely reliant on fossil fuels; they recently made a push into solar, spurred by the Public Service Commission.)
Politicians say they are not influenced by donations.
“I’m not even sure what the connection between donations and climate change would be,” Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Deal, wrote in an email.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle would not plant his flag in the warming camp, but said he could still support sound environmental policies.
“While scientist(s) will argue over this issue, it does appear that the earth goes through warming and cooling cycles,” Cagle said in a statement provided through a spokesman. “I will leave it to scientific experts to determine what the causes of those changes are, but either way we have a moral responsibility to be good stewards of the creation with which we have been entrusted.”
‘Not a scientist’
I-am-not-a-scientist was a popular refrain.
“You know, I’m not a scientist,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Gooch. “So I have to base my decision making on information that I get from other people, so I guess it’s hard for me to say for sure.”
However, he added, “I think we have a duty as citizens to protect Mother Earth and try to pass it on to our next generation as good as or better than we found it.” He thinks we’re on the right course to do that, he said, without federal interference.
His counterpart in the House, Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts, a Republican of Ocilla, was on the same page.
“First of all, naturally, I’m not a scientist, but in my opinion we’re going through cycles like we have throughout history,” Roberts said. He recalled in his own childhood winter holidays much warmer than those now. If so many climate scientists say the earth is warming overall, he said, that may be because they know that’s how they’ll keep getting money for research.
The chair of the House Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee, Don Parsons, a Republican of Marietta, also remains unconvinced. “As far as global warming, I have read so many different things, so many different reports from different scientific studies that come to different conclusions, I don’t know,” Parsons said.
“I’m not one of those people who just sits and rejects the idea, but I’m just not convinced.”
Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University, said policymakers who sidestep the issue on the grounds that they’re not scientists are like a patient’s guardian who ignores the doctors’ diagnosis of a severe illness.
“What that means is, we’re not making decisions based on the best available science,” he said. “It’s potentially a tragedy.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
AJC Data Specialist Jeff Ernsthausen contributed to this article.