WASHINGTON — For Republican presidential contenders who once supported combatting global warming, the race is heating up.
Faced with an activist right wing that questions the science linking pollution to changes in the Earth's climate and also disdains big government, most of the GOP contenders have stepped back from their previous positions on global warming. Some have apologized outright for past support of proposals to reduce heat-trapping pollution. And those who haven't fully recanted are under pressure to do so.
The latest sign of that pressure came Thursday when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he was pulling his state out of a regional agreement to reduce greenhouse gases, saying it won't work. While Christie, a rising GOP star, has said he won't run for his party's presidential nomination, some in the party continue to recruit him.
"Republican presidential hopefuls can believe in man-made global warming as long as they never talk about it, and oppose all the so-called solutions," said Marc Morano, a former aide to Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, one of the most vocal climate skeptics in Congress.
Morano now runs a website called Climate Depot where he attacks anyone who buys into the scientific consensus on climate change. Enemy No. 1 for Morano these days is Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who in 2008 shared a couch with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a TV ad backed by climate change guru Al Gore.
In it Gingrich says, "We do agree that our country must take action on climate change."
Since that appearance, Gingrich, who once ran an environmental studies program at a Georgia college, has called for the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency. He's also spoken out against a Democratic bill that passed the House in 2009 that would have limited emissions of greenhouse gases and created a market for pollution permits to be bought and sold.
But that hasn't been enough to satisfy conservative critics. Gingrich, who in 2007 told The New York Times that it was conceivable human beings were playing a role in global warming, went further in a recent interview when he said he doubted there was a connection between climate change and the burning of fossil fuels.
"The planet used to be dramatically warmer when we had dinosaurs and no people," Gingrich told The Macon (Ga.) Telegraph last week. "To the best of my knowledge the dinosaurs weren't driving cars."
Where Gingrich has waffled, other GOP contenders have conceded on the issue of climate. Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman potentially come into the race with even more climate baggage, since all three supported as governors regional "cap-and-trade" programs to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. All have since abandoned that stance.
"Everybody is instantly suspect about these guys," said Mike McKenna, a Republican strategist working with GOP leaders in Congress who want to prevent the EPA from taking steps to curb global warming. And it's not because the candidates once thought global warming was legitimate, McKenna says. "That just makes people question their judgment. It's that they all bought into a big government program. That makes people question their character."
It's a marked turnaround for a party that just three years ago nominated Republican Sen. John McCain, who long has supported cap and trade to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and who campaigned on the issue even though it put him on the same side as his opponent, Barack Obama.
In fact, the whole idea of a market to trade pollution credits came from the Republican Party. It emerged in the late 1980s under the administration of President George H.W. Bush as a free-market solution to the power plant pollution that was causing acid rain. It passed Congress nearly unanimously in 1990 as a way to control emissions of sulfur dioxide.
But now it has become synonymous with partisanship and political risk. Legislation to use the pollution credits approach to curb global warming passed the Democratic-controlled House in 2009, with the support of Obama. It died in the Senate after Republicans labeled it a "cap-and-tax" plan that would raise energy prices and after House Democrats who voted for it were attacked at town hall meetings back home.
Many of those Democrats lost their seats in last November's elections and with the House now under Republican control, Obama has said he no longer would pursue it.
The current field of Republican presidential hopefuls is working to shed what McCain's former environmental adviser calls the "toxic political veneer" of that policy.
The biggest reversal has come from Pawlenty, who a year after signing a law in Minnesota to cut greenhouse gas emissions was featured in a radio ad for the Environmental Defense Action Fund. Joined by then-Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, now a member of Obama's Cabinet, Pawlenty called on Congress to limit the pollution blamed for global warming. "If we act now," he said in the spot, "we can create thousands of new jobs in clean energy industries before our overseas competitors beat us to it."
Two years later, he wrote Congress opposing the Democratic bill, saying it was "overly bureaucratic, misguided and would be very burdensome on our economy." In a South Carolina debate earlier this month, he apologized altogether for his climate past, calling it a clunker in his record. "I don't duck it, bob it, weave it, try to explain it away," he said. "I'm just telling you, I made a mistake."
Huntsman doesn't go as far. Obama's former ambassador to China, the country that releases more greenhouse gas pollution than any other, tells Time magazine in an interview to be published this week that it's the timing that's off.
As governor of Utah, he appeared in a 2007 ad for an environmental advocacy group in which he said, "Now it's time for Congress to act by capping greenhouse gas pollution." He also signed an agreement with seven other Western states and four Canadian provinces to reduce greenhouse gases. Since then, other states have pulled their support.
"Much of this discussion happened before the bottom fell out of the economy, and until it comes back, this isn't the moment," he says now. When asked whether he believes the climate is changing, he acknowledges the scientific consensus.
"All I know is 90 percent of the scientists say climate change is occurring," he says. "If 90 percent of the oncological community said something was causing cancer, we'd listen to them."
Romney changed his mind less recently. As Massachusetts governor in 2005, he initially supported a regional pollution-reduction market, saying it would spur jobs and the economy. Weeks later, he refused to sign the pact when the other states would not agree to cap the price for pollution permits.
If anyone has a clean record on climate change in the potential GOP field, it's former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. While Palin set up a sub-Cabinet office to map out the state's response to global warming as governor, and sought federal dollars to help coastal communities threatened by erosion, she has been steadfast in saying human beings are not responsible for climate change and that proposals to limit pollution threaten the economy.
Not all Republicans are happy with the trajectory the party is on when it comes to global warming. Former New York Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a 27-year veteran of Congress who was known a staunch protector of the environment, said he has "never been so disappointed all my life in the pretenders to the throne from my party."
"Not one of them is being forthright in dealing with climate science," he said in an interview. "They are either trying to finesse it, or change previous positions to accommodate the far right. They are denying something that is as plain as the nose on your face."
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