Not all Republicans are stuck in the Middle Ages when it comes to attitudes about science. At the party's presidential debate Wednesday night in Simi Valley, Jon Huntsman Jr. showed that at least some of the candidates have advanced past the Enlightenment era.
"Listen, when you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution, all I'm saying is that, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can't run from science," Huntsman said.
The former Utah governor might have only the slimmest of chances to win the GOP nomination, but he isn't the only candidate to acknowledge the scientific consensus that the climate is changing and that the greenhouse gases produced by human activity are the cause; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also recognizes the problem and the need to do something about it, though he hasn't been specific about solutions and has condemned such proposals as carbon taxes or a cap-and-trade program. On the other side, though, is the rest of the Republican field, led by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has referred to climate change theory as a "contrived phony mess" and whose defense of this position Wednesday night marked the intellectual nadir of the debate.
"Well, I do agree that there is — the science is not settled on this," Perry said. "The idea that we would put Americans' economy at jeopardy based on scientific theory that's not settled yet, to me, is just nonsense."
Perry went on to compare himself, or those who agree with him, to 17th century astronomer Galileo Galilei, who in Perry's words also "got outvoted for a spell" when he adopted a minority opinion on a scientific issue. It would be far more accurate to compare Perry to Pope Urban VIII, who put Galileo on trial for heresy in 1633 because his conclusions that the Earth revolved around the sun contradicted Scripture. All scientific theories have doubters, but what is remarkable about climate science is the degree of certainty and agreement among researchers. Huntsman's numbers are about right: In a survey last year by the National Academy of Sciences, 97% to 98% of climate researchers agreed with the premise that humans are causing climate change. At this point, the empirical evidence for warming, like the evidence for a heliocentric solar system or for evolution, is so strong that denial reflects a faith-based approach to public policy.
And that seems to sum up Perry's response to any number of threats. In the midst of a punishing drought that is turning his state into a tinderbox, Perry's answer has been to issue proclamations urging people to pray for rain and to slash firefighting budgets. Heaven help us if he wins.