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GOP candidates head to climate change’s doorstep for California debate

As California residents grapple with warming planet, most GOP contenders waffle on climate change science

LOS ANGELES — When California Gov. Jerry Brown caught wind of the fact that top-tier GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson questioned the science behind climate change on a recent campaign swing through San Francisco, it seemed that Brown, a Democrat, could not help responding.

His office shot off a note to Carson, along with a flash drive containing a 167-page United Nations report written by more than 800 scientists and surveying 30,000 scientific papers definitively concluding that human activity has exacerbated the effects of climate change around the globe.

“These aren’t just words. The consequences are real,” Brown wrote. “Please use your considerable intelligence to review this material. Climate change is much bigger than partisan politics.”

Brown was responding to Carson’s comments last week in an interview with The San Francisco Chronicle after a campaign event. Carson said, “I know there are a lot of people who say ‘overwhelming science,’ but then when you ask them to show the overwhelming science, they never can show it.”

“There is no overwhelming science that the things that are going on are man-caused and not naturally caused,” he continued. “Give me a break.”

But as the GOP presidential candidates make their final preparations for Wednesday night’s debate in California — regarded as a hot spot for climate change impact in the United States — Carson is hardly the only candidate who disputes that human activity has caused the earth to warm. Despite the preponderance of scientific evidence, the provocative position is more the norm in the GOP than the exception.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has slammed climate change as a “pseudoscientific theory” that is “being driven by politicians who want more control over our lives.” GOP front-runner and business mogul Donald Trump has denigrated it on his Twitter account as “a total, and very expensive, hoax!” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said earlier this year, “Humans are not responsible for climate change in the way some of these people out there are trying to make us believe, for the following reason: I believe the climate is changing, because there’s never been a moment where the climate is not changing.” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said earlier this year that the science is “not conclusive.”

Others have carved out a more measured approach, suggesting that climate change may be a real phenomenon exacerbated by human activity but warning that the costs of too much government action are just too high.

“The climate is changing. I don’t think anybody can argue it’s not. Human activity has contributed to it,” said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in an interview with Bloomberg News in July. “I think we have a responsibility to adapt to what the possibilities are without destroying our economy, without hollowing out our industrial core.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich struck much the same cautious chord in May at an energy conference in Ohio.

“I am a believer — my goodness, I am a Republican, I happen to believe there is a problem with climate change,” he said. “But we can’t overreact to it and make things up, but it is something we have to recognize is a problem.”

Those positions stand in marked contrast to the way climate change is being felt and dealt with in California, where residents have experienced four years of a punishing drought that has exacerbated wildfires, caused water shortages and stressed the state’s sprawling agriculture industry. A study from Columbia’s Earth Institute released in August found that climate change has made the drought in California 25 percent worse.

Californians appear to be linking those struggles with the broader problem of climate change. According to a University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times poll, released Monday, 57 percent of state residents surveyed said they believe the drought is a “major crisis,” with 69 percent putting the blame largely or somewhat on global climate change.

“It intensifies our realization that climate change is a real issue,” said Ann Hancock, the executive director of the Center for Climate Protection, a California-based organization that advocates for greenhouse gas emission reductions. “All of us are aware of the drought, it’s in the news all the time, and it affects everything from our shampooing to our agriculture. It casts this huge pall over us.”

In contrast to national politics, California lawmakers from both sides of the aisle appear to be ready to take action on the issue. The California Assembly last week passed legislation that will require state utilities to generate 50 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by 2030. Although environmentalists were disappointed that a provision requiring Californians to slash their gasoline use by half in the same period was removed from the final bill, many said national politicians could take a cue from California's example.

“There are communities that are lining up for water, and that’s forcing people and, more importantly, policymakers to think about climate change in a more aggressive way,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a representative for the climate change advocacy group 350.org, which runs several campaigns in California.

He said that at the GOP debate in Simi Valley, he would like the candidates to at least acknowledge climate change as an issue worthy of discussion and policy solutions.

“We should start with acknowledging the science of climate change and humanity’s role in worsening climate change every day,” he said. “We’re clearly not at the stage where we can discuss solutions with the Republican candidates.”

“It’s absolutely urgent,” Hancock said. “It makes me ashamed that we have potential leaders of our country in such denial about the threat of climate change.”

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