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Global warming: a moving target for presidential politicians

by Alan Markow, published

In 2008, the two presidential candidates couldn’t say enough about the dangers of climate change. John McCain wanted to see a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gases during his term of office, while Barack Obama put his target at 80 percent.  Flash forward to 2012 and look at President Barack Obama’s single, passionless comment on climate change in his State of the Union address:

“The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change.”

What has happened in the interim is reflected in the climate change or global warming positions of the current crop of presidential candidates. Evidently, the issue has become a political third rail – untouchable for any purpose except to condemn the entire climate change topic as a “hoax.”  What hasn’t changed in the interim is climate science and the belief by the vast majority of climatologists that global warming is real and threatening to the planet.

While President Obama retains his belief that global warming is a serious problem, most of the Republican candidates have shifted their views from enthusiastic or tepid support of the issue to full level disdain for it. The only exception is Buddy Roemer, the former Louisiana governor. Here’s Roemer’s specific response to the issue of global warming:

"I think the globe is warming – beyond scientific curiosity now it’s a scientific fact. The cause of it is probably more than one thing. There are cycles in the Earth’s history where temperature rises and falls. We might be on one of those cycles. But I don’t think there is any question that man’s effect on his environment is also a factor. So we need to be commonsensical. We need to … plan out how to ameliorate, how to diffuse man’s effect. Maybe man has nothing to do with it. How can we take the risk?"

The better-known Republicans who are still running have all changed their minds about global warming, with the exception of Rick Santorum. Santorum has consistently held to one position on the issue, which is summarized by, The Political Guide:

“Senator Santorum does not believe in man-made global warming. In 2011, he referred to the notion that man was changing the climate as patently absurd. He opposes cap-and-trade legislation, stating that it would destroy a state like Pennsylvania.”

The positions of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are more complex because they have changed over the years.

Gingrich famously appeared in an ad sitting next to Nancy Pelosi to declare that “our country must take action on climate change.” He now calls that ad “the dumbest single thing I’ve done in the last few years,” and went on to deny that he had ever supported “cap and trade,” a key element of climate change legislation.

But it turns out that Gingrich did, in fact, praise cap and trade in 2007, saying in a Frontline interview:

“I think if you have mandatory carbon caps combined with a trading system, much like we did with sulfur, and if you have a tax-incentive program for investing in the solutions, that there’s a package there that’s very, very good. And frankly, it’s something I would strongly support.”

As late as June 2011, Romney sounded like a strong advocate of action to counter global warming:

“I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer. And number two, I believe that humans contribute to that,” he said in Manchester, New Hampshire. “I think it’s important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may well be significant contributors to the climate change and global warming that you’re seeing.”

But by August, after Rush Limbaugh savaged him over that position, Romney had decided that he really wasn’t so sure about whether the world was getting warmer, or whether the warming was caused by man, then added, “What I’m not willing to do is spend trillions of dollars on something I don’t know the answer to.”

Ron Paul has also communicated mixed feelings about global warming, choosing to move from this thoughtful discussion in a 2008 New York Times article:

“There is clear evidence that the temperatures in some parts of the globe are rising, but temperatures are cooling in other parts. The average surface temperature had risen for several decades, but it fell back substantially in the past few years. Clearly there is something afoot. The question is: Is the upward fluctuation in temperature man-made or part of a natural phenomenon?”

And then, he went more Tea Party-centric in his 2009 interview on Fox Business News:

“The greatest hoax I think that has been around for many, many years if not hundreds of years has been this hoax on [...] global warming.”

Backing away from positions that acknowledge or at least consider the reality of global warming has become the team sport of the major Republican candidates. Only Buddy Roemer remains consistent in his view of the existence and importance of climate change. For the rest, it seems to be about just changing their minds.

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