Climate Questions for the GOP

What to ask candidates so clearly unconcerned?

During last week’s Republican presidential primary debate in New Hampshire, CNN’s John King, who served as moderator, asked questions about jobs and taxes, but not climate change. CJR reader and helpful heckler Jeff Huggins pointed out the omission in a recent comment.

Indeed, the word “climate” never came up, but the candidates created their own opportunities to take pot shots at the Obama administration’s energy policy. When King asked a question about how quickly he could “grow the economy,” former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum complained about “Obamacare” and “oppressive regulation,” adding:

Throw on top of that what this president’s done on energy. The reason we’re seeing this second dip is because of energy prices, and this president has put a stop sign again — against oil drilling, against any kind of exploration offshore or in Alaska, and that is depressing. We need to drill. We need to create energy jobs, just like we’re doing, by the way, in Pennsylvania, where we’re drilling 3,000 wells this year for gas, and gas prices are down — natural gas prices are down as a result.

Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty quickly followed up with the banal observation that “We need to have a pro-American energy policy.” Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said that the Obama administration is an “anti-American energy destructive force.”

CNN’s King, deaf to the need for a follow-up question, left that task to local journalists in the audience. John Distaso, a reporter for the Union Leader in Manchester, pointed to a bill under consideration in the state legislature that would restrict governments’ ability to seize land for power plants or transmission facilities.

“Should governments at any level be able to use eminent domain for major projects that will reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil?” Distaso asked Mitt Romney, pointing out that the former Massachusetts governor is a property owner, but also supports reducing dependence on foreign oil. Romney said eminent domain should not be used to give land to private enterprises, and then basically echoed Santorum’s admiration of fossil fuels:

Now, the right answer for us to have energy independence is to start developing our own energy in this country, and we’re not doing that. We — we have a huge find with natural gas; 100 years of new natural gas has been found. More drilling for oil, natural gas, clean coal. We have coal in great abundance, nuclear power ultimately, and all the renewables. But it’s time for us to have a president who really cares about finally getting America on track for energy security.

Josh McElveen, an anchor at a local TV news station, asked Santorum about the Senate abolishing government subsidies for ethanol (which it later did on June 16). Santorum replied that he supported doing so, but added that he would use the savings to “help expand distribution for E-85 [a high ethanol blend of fuel] in other areas of the country” over a period of five years.

If none of the presidential candidates mentioned climate, it is likely because they have already made it abundantly clear that they are unconcerned with the issue. Pawlenty, who endorsed a cap-and-trade scheme to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions while governor of Minnesota, was one of the first to stir up headlines. In late March, he said on the Laura Ingraham Show that his support for cap-and-trade was “a mistake.” He repeated the line during the first Republican debate of the campaign season on May 5 in Greenville, South Carolina.

“I’ve said I was wrong. It was a mistake, and I’m sorry,” Pawlenty told the Fox television audience. “You’re going to have a few clunkers in your record, and we all do, and that’s one of mine. I just admit it. I don’t try to duck it, bob it, weave it, try to explain it away. I’m just telling you, I made a mistake.”

On May 9, Politico noted that “unlike Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich,” who appeared alongside Democrat Nancy Pelosi in a 2007 ad for Al Gore’s Repower American Campaign, “makes no apologies about his past advocacy on climate change. That may be so, but less than a week later, he was certainly backpedaling, telling The Telegraph in Macon, Georgia that while he acknowledged the reality of global warming, he was uncertain about humans’ contribution.

“The planet used to be dramatically warmer when we had dinosaurs and no people. To the best of my knowledge the dinosaurs weren’t driving cars,” he said.

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, yet another Republican who once endorsed cap-and-trade and appeared in an Environmental Defense Action Fund ad, was even less apologetic. Asked about his belief in climate change during a May 16 interview, he told Time:

All I know is 90 percent of the scientists say climate change is occurring. If 90 percent of the oncological community said something was causing cancer we’d listen to them. I respect science and the professionals behind the science so I tend to think it’s better left to the science community - though we can debate what that means for the energy and transportation sectors.

Romney took a similar tack during a town hall meeting on June 3. “The putative Republican presidential front-runner, eager to prove his conservative bona fides, could easily have said what he knew many in his party’s base wanted to hear,” The Washington Post observed. “Instead, the former Massachusetts governor stuck to the position he has held for many years — that he believes the world is getting warmer and that humans are contributing to that pattern.”

Romney’s comments drew a rebuke from conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who said they meant, “Bye-bye nomination.” So it is no wonder that even he and Huntsman have disavowed support for cap-and-trade.

Articles from Greenwire, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR have analyzed the Republicans’ efforts to beat a hasty retreat from past positions on climate policy. Pointing to 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s support for cap-and-trade, both the AP and the Monitor observed that the strategy represents a “marked turnaround” from “a time when Republicans were at the forefront of efforts to investigate - maybe even do something about - the impact of human activity on global climate.”

That is certainly overstating the case, however. Despite McCain’s support for a national cap-and-trade scheme, as well as similar regional efforts that involved a few Republican governors, the GOP has simply never been a leader on climate policy. NPR called it a “non-issue” for Republicans, and other reporting seemed to support that theory.

“The issue itself is not a particularly important issue to people,” GOP strategist and energy lobbyist Michael McKenna told Greenwire. “It is a surrogate, a totem for how you feel about large government versus small government, or general willingness to accept the perceived wisdom of the mainstream for a whole bunch of things.”

In the same story, Marc Morano, who runs a website that claims global warming is a hoax, predicted that no candidate would raise the issue of climate policy voluntarily. By way of retort, David Jenkins, vice president for government and political affairs at Republicans for Environmental Protection, said that silence would be a mistake, and pointed to a voter survey his group helped carry out last spring, which showed strong support within the party for “a national energy policy boosting domestic energy production and capping carbon emissions.”

Whatever the case, the onus is clearly on reporters to broach climate change, and they very well should. But it will almost certainly be more fruitful for them to also pursue a line of questioning focused on the specifics of energy policy. The Republican candidates have already demonstrated eagerness to bring up oil and gas drilling, attempts to capture and store carbon from coal burning, nuclear power, and even, to a lesser extent, renewables.

There are plenty of ways for journalists to asking more probing questions about how candidates’ targets for the country’s energy mix square with their goals for job-creation, national security, public health, and yes, environmental protection. The local journalists at the debate in New Hampshire did an exemplary job of framing their queries in the context of regional power concerns. GOP candidates may not want to address climate change directly, but energy is the obvious and effective end-around.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , ,