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Cory Gardner’s science award led some to cry foul over climate change. Here’s why that’s notable for 2020.

Colorado's Republican senator says he believes climate change is real and caused by humans, but environmental groups say his voting record suggests otherwise

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, on a tour of abandoned mines in Clear Creek County. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner says he believes climate change is real and that humans are contributing to it.

“I’ve said it before — I said it in 2014 — there’s no doubt pollution contributes to climate change,” the Colorado Republican told The Colorado Sun last week. “Climate change is real. I’ve been on the record saying that.”

But when American Geophysical Union announced it was giving Gardner its presidential citation for his work to improve science education for women and minorities, dozens of the organization’s 60,000 members began to sound the alarm. They argued that Gardner has denied climate science and supported legislation and President Donald Trump’s political appointees that threaten to worsen climate change.

“Sen. Gardner’s public positions on many aspects of the Earth and environmental sciences reflect his rejection of scientific findings uncovered by decades of research by AGU scientists,” dozens of the group’s members said in a letter criticizing the award’s presentation to Gardner.

The debate is a preview of what is forecast to be a difficult 2020 re-election bid for Gardner. The environment and climate change are likely to be key attack topics for Democrats and the deep-pocketed groups supporting them. Already organizations, including the League of Conservation Voters, are amassing a ledger of Gardner’s votes on the subject as they work to build their case.

MORE: The 2020 election starts today and Cory Gardner is in trouble

The criticism is not necessarily new: Gardner has faced similar charges since 2014 when he was first elected to the Senate. But with climate science increasingly in the public eye — especially after two dire reports predicted disaster if nothing is done — it’s expected to be a bigger dividing line in his reelection campaign.

A United Nations climate change study found there’s a high probability of crisis in the coming decades, and the National Climate Assessment, released by the U.S. government last month, said the impacts of climate change are already being felt across the country and the nation’s infrastructure and economic vibrancy are at risk.

Cory Gardner’s record on climate change

Gardner has come out against or not supported tougher regulations for emissions of carbon dioxide and methane, a potent greenhouse gas that scientists say is among the biggest contributors to climate change. His campaigns have taken large sums — more than $1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — from the oil and gas industry, which is a major employer in Colorado.

Gardner has also voted in favor of political appointees whose records on the environment have been blasted by environmental groups. That included U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, formerly of Boulder, and 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Allison Eid, as well as Trump’s picks for agency heads, such as former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.

One vote that critics seize on is Gardner’s decision not to back a 2015 amendment acknowledging human-induced climate change.

But Gardner says his voting record on environmental issues reflects his concern for the economy. He wants a cleaner, greener future, but at the sake of jobs.

“If I wasn’t concerned about the environment, I wouldn’t have done the things that I’ve done in the past,” he said. Environmental groups, he said, “want things their way or the highway. I’m not going to put people out of work simply to meet a partisan objective.”

More specifically, his office says the 2015 amendment he voted against was nothing more than partisan messaging that had no tangible impact. He did vote for another amendment proclaiming climate change is real and not a hoax. Meanwhile, his disapproval of President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan limiting carbon emissions, Gardner’s office says, centered around it being an executive action that bypassed Congress.

“What I’m doing is fighting for policies that have bipartisan support, that can receive successful buy-in from both sides of the aisle to reduce pollution to promote clean energy, to promote wind, (and) solar, to move toward a renewable energy future,” he said. “I’m not going to do that to the detriment of jobs in my hometown, or jobs in other places in Colorado. I think we can have a brighter, cleaner future without hurting the people who live next to us.”

Take the Obama administration rules tightening methane emissions standards for oil and gas operators drilling on federal lands: The regulation “hurt the economy significantly,” Gardner said.

As for the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back those rules, Gardner demurred.

MORE: Dozens plead with Trump administration to keep methane rules at one-and-done hearing in Denver

“I would have to get more specifics on what they are doing,” he said. “Colorado has a methane rule in place. Colorado was able to work with the industry, environmentalists and the people involved to come up with a rule that works for Colorado.”

Does he support the state’s methane rules, which the current Democratic governor proclaimed would be enforced despite any federal changes? Again he wouldn’t answer directly.

“I think the state made a decision that it believes is best,” he said. “It’s not my place to say if I support it or not.”

Gardner says he is still reviewing the national climate assessment. When asked for his reaction to Trump’s statement that he doesn’t believe the report’s findings, the senator said: “When it comes to things like wind energy, I’ve fought the White House … and I’ll continue to do that.”

Gardner says he has worked hard to protect funding for Colorado’s National Renewable Energy Lab and bolster the markets for wind and solar power. Recently, he has been promoting the Land and Water Conservation Fund as proponents battle for its funding.

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, center, during a tour of abandoned mines in Clear Creek County in August. The Colorado Republican is working to reduce pollution from the thousands of historic mining sites throughout the state. “I think this is recognition of the good environmental work that I have pursued,” Gardner said of the American Geophysical Union award. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

In a recent letter, Dr. Waleed Abdalati, chief scientist at NASA under Obama and who now is director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences in Boulder, praised Gardner for his work on environmental issues.

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which manages the Boulder-based National Center for Atmospheric Research, said the award given to Gardner shows he has “provided exemplary leadership and support for major aspects of Earth-system science and helped to maintain funding levels for research that is essential for the nation’s long-term economic and national security.”

The non-partisan, Washington, D.C.-based non-profit American Association for the Advancement of Science has also praised the Republican senator for the award.

Science organization apologizes for miscues with award

The American Geophysical Union gave its presidential citation to Gardner specifically because of his work on the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2017, which aims to strengthen the U.S. STEM education pipeline by increasing the number of women and minorities in science and technology fields. He received the award at a ceremony Monday night.

The organization’s president and executive director, Chris McEntee, last week released a statement apologizing for the complaints caused by the decision to recognize Gardner.

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

“First, we acknowledge that we failed to communicate with the community about the citations and the reasons Senators Cory Gardner and (Michigan Democrat) Gary Peters were chosen,” he wrote. “Second, we did not act to proactively address the concerns some of you have over Senator Gardner’s selection. While these were failures in process and not intentional, the result was the same: confusion and serious concern about this choice. For that we are deeply sorry.”

Pete Maysmith, senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters, said the award is “a blunder and it doesn’t represent reality.”

“This is an issue that demands immediate and bold action, and his votes as a U.S. senator have actually made the situation worse,” he said of Gardner’s stance on environmental issues. “Far from being part of the solution, he’s part of the problem.”

Maysmith said the award comes as Gardner could launch efforts in 2020 to try to “greenwash” his record.

But Gardner said the blowback is likely based on fears that the award could be used to undermine environmental groups’ attempts to cast him as anti-science in 2020.

“I think this is recognition of the good environmental work that I have pursued,” Gardner said. “It certainly undercuts and pushes back on what they’ve been saying and it really does reveal that their attacks are simply that: partisan, baseless attacks.”

Gardner says he is “the Republican who is willing to stick my neck out on common-sense, clean energy policies.”

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