The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We don’t have a Ted Cruz problem on climate change. We have a GOP problem on climate change.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) (Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg News)

Ted Cruz has earned infamy for the self-regarding analogy he drew between his attacks on climate science and the work of Galileo — both, apparently, opposed the authoritarian non-science of their respective days. But what does the Texas senator really believe on climate change? And I don’t mean in the “is his ridiculous persona just a cynical act or some kind of performance art” sense, though that’s reasonable to wonder. What is his public stance on carbon dioxide’s effects on the planet and the necessity of acting to prevent major climatic changes? It’s pretty much the same as that of lots of other Republicans.

Cruz clearly bristles at the characterization that he is a climate “denier.” That might be because he doesn’t deny that the world has warmed. In fact, Cruz spokesman Phil Novack reminded The Post’s Fact Checker, Cruz voted with 97 other senators in January for an amendment asserting that “climate change is real and not a hoax.”

What Cruz denies is that climate scientists’ modeling of what will happen from here is sound. For evidence, he points to the “pause” in warming that scientists have observed in satellite readings over the past decade and a half, disregarding all the reasons these readings shouldn’t be much comfort. Because scientists’ models didn’t forecast the pause, Cruz’s thinking goes, how can we trust that they will be any more reliable about other predictions?

In an interview with the Texas Tribune, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said that "global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers." (Video: Texas Tribune)

There are many reasons this line of argument doesn’t justify complacency, as Philip Bump, The Fact Checker and others have noted. But Cruz’s view nevertheless leaves room for a wide variety of alternative hypotheses about what’s driving climate change. Perhaps some wholly natural trend we don’t understand is behind warming? Maybe carbon dioxide has some effect on global temperature, but it’s a much smaller one than scientists anticipate? If you’re Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the Senate’s chief climate gadfly, it’s all God’s work anyway, so why pretend as though humans can change anything?

Any and all of these explanations lead to a convenient policy conclusion: Speedily transitioning to cleaner fuels isn’t worth the money or effort. As Mitt Romney put it in 2011, “We don’t know what’s causing climate change, and the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try and reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.”

Because positing a high level of uncertainty allows Republicans to validate a variety of views — even some that admit that human carbon dioxide emissions have some effect — it also allows them to make public comments that seem to support climate know-nothing-ism in the GOP base, then explain their positions in slightly less bizarre terms when reporters press them. It’s not that Cruz thinks climate change isn’t happening, his spokesman gets to tell The Fact Checker, it’s that he thinks scientists put too much trust in their inherently uncertain models of the future. The more nuanced take isn’t what most people hear.

Many other Republicans rely on some form of Cruz’s rationale. In fact, the Senate literally held a vote on it in January. Though nearly every senator voted for a measure stating that climate change is happening, only 50 — nearly all Democrats — supported the contention that humans contribute significantly to warming.

No one should expect climate models to be perfect. But they are experts’ best reckoning of the risks that unabated carbon dioxide emissions pose to human civilization — risks worth hedging against. Republicans, pompous in their dismissal of the risks, implicitly or explicitly resist this logic. The difference between Cruz and many other Republican politicians is that he revels in the full, unvarnished arrogance and irresponsibility of their positioning.