Marco Rubio denies being a climate-change denier. But the Florida senator isn't a believer, either.
Call him a skeptic. For now.
"I think all science deserves skepticism," Rubio said in an interview about what he does and doesn't believe about global warming and what to do about it.
And right now, Rubio doesn't want to take too much action.
In the wake of a new White House report on climate change that paints a bleak picture for his home county, his state, the nation and the planet, Rubio harbors doubts about some of the findings. He's especially opposed to suggested fixes designed to lessen the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in the United States.
Rubio says he thinks the laws won't work — but will hurt the economy in a "devastating" way.
Rubio's comments about the report, first made Sunday on ABC's This Week, exposed him to criticism from scientists, editorial writers and Democrats, who say the potential Republican candidate for president is thinking more about a future GOP primary instead of the health of the planet or Miami. Some branded Rubio a climate-change denier.
"Denial is a loaded term. That's a term used to smear people, for example, who deny the Holocaust existed or denied other things of that nature," Rubio said.
"I've never denied that there is a climate change," Rubio said. "The question is: Is man-made activity causing the changes in the climate?"
Rubio, however, won't answer that with a yes or no.
"I understand, politically, the issue is easier to write as 'he either supports it or he doesn't. He either believes it or he doesn't.' But these are complex issues. Even the science on this has evolved over the past 20 years," he said.
Over time, however, the vast majority of climate researchers from across the globe have increasingly found that the earth has warmed over the past 100 years, the seas are rising, ice packs are melting. An analysis of peer-reviewed climate-science research found that 97 percent of them found man-made climate change was significant.
But Rubio said his concern is rooted in what scientists have reported — global surface temperatures haven't significantly increased in the past 15 years despite an increase in carbon dioxide, which traps greenhouse gases.
"I haven't done the studies. I can tell you what scientists say," he said.
"Scientists have concluded, in their opinion, that because we have produced more carbon into the atmosphere in the last 150 years, that's the reason why, in their opinion, the earth's trend lines are warming," he said. "What they can't answer to me is: Well why has that stopped over the last 16 years?"
But the warming overall hasn't stopped and Rubio is "confused" about the wealth of data showing it, said Ben Kirtman, a University of Miami meteorology and oceanography professor and associate dean of research who was a lead author of a U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released last September.
Kirtman said surface temperatures haven't warmed in about 15 years or so, but they will soon, and overall the trend for surface temperatures has gone upward — similar to a stock-market chart that has fluctuations but shows long-term increases. Also, global warming is clear because, "when you look at the whole record and you look at the multiple lines of evidence — the upper atmosphere, the water vapor, the sea ice, the snow cover, the deep ocean, the surface, the marine boundary layer — everything is pointing to the same thing," Kirtman said.
"He's looking at one data set. He's ignoring the others. And he's ignoring the balance of evidence over the entire record," Kirtman said. "So he's basically accusing scientists of cherry picking, but he has cherry picked. He has cherry picked a short period of time where global warming, because of natural variability, looks like it slowed down, but it hasn't."
But for Rubio, the argument still doesn't make sense: If more carbon causes the planet to warm, and there's more carbon in the air over the past 15 years, then even the surface temperatures should be rising as well.
Rubio said that, until questions like this are "settled," he won't back laws that raise the cost of fossil fuels. Doing so, he said, wouldn't make much of a dent in the climate, especially with emerging nations like China and India producing more carbon than ever.
"In exchange for all this level of uncertainty that's out there, they want me to support dramatic, unilateral American policies that, for a fact, would be devastating to the economy, but which they admit would do nothing to impact these extreme weather occurrences," Rubio said.
Echoing other scientists, Kirtman said he doesn't disagree with Rubio about the immediate effects of reducing carbon: "We're committed to a certain amount of warming for the next 30 years."
But, he said, it's better — and cheaper in the long term — to start reducing carbon now, building structures to prepare for higher seas and worse weather, and examining ways to capture or counteract the effects of carbon dioxide.
"By wholesale denying the climate-change problem, that's allowing people to get away with not dealing with the adaptation problem," he said. "And that's disastrous."
Kirtman said, for instance, that sea level rise threatens Miami Beach with being nearly uninhabitable in the next 20 years if no changes are made. U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, who chairs the Democratic National Committee, took to Twitter on Monday to call out Rubio.
"Cannot believe that a senator from #Florida can be so backwards about climate science. #wakeup," she tweeted.
Rubio's friend and Democratic counterpart, Sen. Bill Nelson, is such a strong believer in climate change that he recently convened a special hearing in Miami Beach to discuss its threats.
But Rubio points out that Democrats do more talking than acting; they didn't pass climate-change legislation from 2009-2011 when they controlled the House, Senate and White House.
"The Democrats control the Senate," Rubio said. "They can bring any bill to the floor that they want. Why don't they put it for a vote? I'll tell you why: Because a significant number of Democrats won't vote for it because they, too, have made the same calculation."
Other top Florida Republicans, Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Jeb Bush — another potential 2016 White House contender — have avoided talking about the climate-change issue recently.
Democratic candidate for governor Charlie Crist made climate change an issue when he was a Republican governor, but his plans were watered down in 2007 by Rubio, who was Florida House speaker and opposed the so-called "cap-and-trade" legislation.
Rubio said he supports smarter building to prepare for extreme weather and rising seas. He also backs more climate-change research and monitoring as well as more biofuels, and more nuclear, solar and wind power.
"What I have a problem with is this idea we can windmill our way into the 21st Century," he said.
Marc Caputo can be reached at [email protected]