The GOP’s Favorite Climate Excuse Makes a Comeback in the Trump Administration

Ryan Zinke is not a scientist.

Ron Sachs/CNP via ZUMA

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It’s been a while since “I’m not a scientist” was the go-to line for Republican politicians confronted with uncomfortable questions about climate change. But the infamous talking point made a big comeback at Tuesday’s confirmation hearing for Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Interior Department.

During the hearing, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asked Zinke whether he agrees with the president-elect’s view that climate change is a “hoax.”

“I’m not a climate scientist expert, but I can tell you I will become a lot more familiar with it.”

Zinke responded that he does believe the “climate is changing” and cited his own experience of watching glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park recede. Zinke added that “man has had an influence—I think that is undisputable as well.”

Zinke said climate change isn’t a hoax, but from there, his answer got muddier. He reverted to the classic not-a-scientist logic we’ve heard before from his colleagues.

“I’m not a climate scientist expert, but I can tell you I will become a lot more familiar with it,” he said. “And it will be based on objective science.”

Zinke insisted that “there’s a debate” on what exactly man’s influence on the climate is, as well as on “what we can do about it.” As head of Interior, he noted he could turn to experts at the United States Geological Survey. “We have great scientists there,” he said, adding, “There’s a lot of debate on both sides of the aisle.”

Sanders cut him off there, saying, “Well, actually, there’s not a whole lot of debate now. The scientific community is virtually unanimous that climate change is real and causing devastating problems. There is a debate on this committee but not within the scientific community.”

The issue came up again later in the hearing when Zinke said, “I’m not an expert in this field,” regarding climate change’s threat to national security.

“That to me is a cop out,” Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) replied. “I’m not a doctor, but I have to make health care decisions.”

The GOP regularly cycles through reasons for ignoring the scientific consensus that humans are largely responsible for climate change. The “I’m not a scientist” line is one of the most famous of these excuses. Marco Rubio, Rick Scott, and Jeb Bush have all used it.

The phrase became so well known that President Barack Obama had his own rejoinder: “I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists—that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what? I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA and NOAA and at our major universities.”

More MotherJones reporting on Climate Desk

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In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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