The Sununu Family And Climate Change Over The Years

Apr 4, 2019

Governor Chris Sununu comes from one of New Hampshire's most prominent political families. His father, John H. Sununu, served as governor and later as chief of staff for former President George H.W. Bush. His brother, John E. Sununu, served as a U.S. congressman and senator. In the latest episode of Outside/In, a podcast about the outdoors, NHPR's Annie Ropeik and Sam Evans-Brown track the Republican Party's views on climate change over the years through the lens of this one political family.

Peter Biello, host of All Things Considered at NHPR, spoke with Annie and Sam about their reporting for this podcast episode, called “The Family Business.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

PB: Sam, what made you want to do an episode about the Sununus and climate change?

SEB: It really dates back to a New York Times Magazine article that came out back in August, and it centered on the decade of the 1980s, and the fizzling of the first international climate talks in that decade. And really what the reporting showed in that article was that John H. Sununu, the father of Chris Sununu, was the primary political actor that led to the fizzling of those talks.

PB: Is it possible, Annie, for you to summarize the ways in which the Sununu family's views on climate change have evolved? Have they evolved? Or have they been consistent throughout the years?

AR: I would say that they have a consistent basis, but they've been expressed in different ways. What we found is that each Sununu, through the party politics of their day and the era of climate science and public opinion that we were in, handled those views in their political office in different ways.

John H. was very much a hard liner on this -- he did not believe that this is something the U.S. should be spending tons of money on. John E. Sununu kind of had to toe a different party line and give the appearance, or at least take some action, on climate change that ultimately still fizzled in his day. And then today, Chris Sununu, our current governor, has had to deal with this in a purple state where the general public consensus is in favor of climate action, but he's also still speaking to a base that opposes that. And so he's had to kind of hedge on these issues a little bit more.

But ultimately, it all has the same effect which is to act at a slow pace on climate change. And then, of course, there's Michael Sununu, who is the brother, who hasn't held public office, who is essentially a self-identifying climate change denier and talks about science a lot more. He's more of a blunt interpretation of his father's politics.

PB: So it sounds like what you're saying is that the Sununu family has, over the decades, been more or less representative of what the party feels about climate change overall.

AR: Absolutely.

PB: So, Sam, as you mentioned in the episode, Democrats are having a moment with respect to climate change heading into the 2020 New Hampshire primary. What about Republicans?

SEB: Well, it's funny that you say that. Two days before we published the episode, Lamar Alexander (a Republican senator from Tennessee) actually came out with his own conservative take on what climate action legislation would look like. And he called it a 'New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy.' And it's basically a very aggressive doubling of research and development dollars put towards coming up with energy breakthroughs. And so I think we've seen public opinion on climate change shifts towards, very recently and very abruptly, there are a lot more people who are suddenly concerned about it as an issue, and I think you're seeing the Democrats respond to that and Republicans respond in kind.