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Gov. Sununu Touts Science Background, But Doesn't Always Listen to Science

Allegra Boverman for NHPR

Part of Governor Chris Sununu’s political identity is built on science and thought. There’s Sununu’s oft-cited degree from MIT, his professional background as an engineer, and his family’s well-tended reputation for being smart.

But on two recent issues, the governor backed away from letting science - or expert opinion - guide his policy decisions.

Throughout his run for Governor, Chris Sununu stressed his plans to govern by logic and reason. He espoused this during one-on-one interviews.

“I’m an engineer by trade, a civil and environmental engineer for many years. I am all about finding a root cause of an issue.”

During candidate forums, Sununu brandished his scientific credentials as a weapon.

“Let me tell you, when it comes to understanding the environment and climate change...you’ve never had a governor with the experience that I bring to the table in this state, ever. It was my job for many, many years. I studied it at MIT. This is what I did.”

But studying climate change - and dispassionately weighing the policies that touch it - seem less of a priority these days.

“You know it’s not my job to go through the whole accord and look at the in-depth economic impacts across the country economically."

That was Sununu talking last week about President Trump’s decision withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.

“The President has done that and his team has done that and they’ve made the decision that they feel is in the best interest of the United States and I stand by that.”

Trump’s decision on the Paris Accord roiled the mainstream scientific community and prompted other governors, including Republicans Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Phil Scott of Vermont, to act. But not Sununu.

“To be honest its nothing I’ve really thought about. Its a federal issue at this point. I’m focused on the 603, and what we do here.”

Sununu’s focus on New Hampshire and his willingness to buck scientific consensus were also on display during another recent and more local story.

Credit Jed Williamson
Scientists say that once bears break and enter into a house, they should be destroyed.

In the event you haven’t heard, the bears – three cubs and a mother – had taken up residence in a Hanover neighborhood, foraging around trash cans, and once entering a house.

Per Fish and Game's policy – a policy all other states in New England share - the breaking and entering was poof these bears were too accustomed to humans, and would need to be killed. Sununu pledged that wouldn’t happen and made sure it didn’t by forcing Fish and Game to instead capture the cubs and move them to Pittsburg.

Pete Pekins, a bear expert who chairs UNH’s department of natural resources, says he understands the impulse to spare the bears, but says the science is clear: relocating the bears is no guarantee.

“I mean nobody is wishing to see these bears again, but our data would suggest one of three or thirty-three percent of these will get in a conflict. I mean, we saw higher rates in the bears we moved.”

But put numbers like this to the Governor Sununu and he doesn’t blink, and indicates he’s focusing on a different metric.

“I have no doubt that the action we took in saving these bears and relocating them was the absolute correct thing to do. And if you listen to the public support of it, it's overwhelming that people understand that this was the right thing to do.”

UNH political scientist Dante Scala says on both issues – climate change and the bears – the Governor is probably well-served to heed his political instincts: The New Hampshire electorate is to the right of those in our neighboring states, as is the GOP that Sununu leads.

Scala says it’s also worth remembering that the political moment moves governors, just like everyone else.

“Sununu’s got a scientific background but politicians are politicians, and sometimes they are going to act from their gut.”

This is an impulse the bears Governor Sununu saved may not appreciate, but probably understand.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.

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