Some GOP candidates are warming to climate change

The latest round of Republican debates further confirms that there are a wide range of positions on climate change for voters to consider. But any serious policy engagement likely remains isolated on the fringes of the party unless one begins to pay closer attention to the second-tier candidates.

Climate change has surfaced occasionally in recent (Republican) debates but with little indication that there will be sustained discussion of it or serious exchanges among candidates with differences. This may well relegate the issue to the back benches for the balance of the Republican race, even though there is recent evidence of growing belief among Republicans that global warming is occurring.

Nonetheless, the current mixture of candidates is not monolithic on this issue and there appears less traction than a year or two ago for positioning that contends that global warming is not occurring or is only attributable to natural weather patterns. Perhaps Ted Cruz remains the leading spokesperson for this view, including his attempt to pry his way into a previous debate exchange by volunteering to offer his views as a “skeptic.” Ben Carson also navigates this space although it is truly difficult to discern what he means from his public statements to date on climate change.

In contrast, candidates like Marco Rubio are a bit more nuanced, less likely to acknowledge evidence of climate change but adamant that any policy interventions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would have dire consequences for the American economy and thus must be deterred. Carly Fiorina occupies similar ground, though she has not addressed this in debates.

Chris Christie takes it a step further, directly acknowledging warming last night but cautioning against any tax-based strategy to reduce emissions. Instead, he reminded listeners—correctly—that New Jersey ranks third (after Arizona and California) in solar power installation and claimed credit for that record—not-so-correctly. In fact, New Jersey has been actively pursuing expanded solar through a series of regulatory and market policies for more than a decade. But it is intriguing to hear Christie embrace rather than hide this aspect of his record in addressing a national audience.

Of course, there is a quite different set of views on climate change among Republican presidential aspirants hovering at or below one percent in the polls and likely to disappear in the coming months.

Yet again last night, Lindsey Graham risked further isolation in his party and state by saying, “I think I’m trying to solve problems that somebody better solve.” He then went on to describe his concerns about the greenhouse gas effect, “that we’re heating up the planet.” Graham has a bit of a history on this issue, including extended negotiations with Senate Democrats in 2010 on climate policy, even though it is hard to see any political payoff for him from this.

And then there is George Pataki, among the most obscure of the remaining candidates but the only one with an actual track record on climate change. As Governor of New York, Pataki was a key political architect of one of the few carbon pricing experiments in the world that has proven durable across election cycles and done much of what it was intended to do. Indeed, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) involves nine other states in a carbon trading program and was created through an agreement between a mix of Republican and Democratic governors a decade ago.

Pataki did not revisit the RGGI experience last night. But he lamented why Republicans spend so much time “questioning positions everyone accepts,” before noting the role that natural gas has played in driving down American emissions in recent years.

It would be interesting to envision a climate-focused debate, one that perhaps narrowed the field to candidates who have addressed the subject in some way. Imagine a conversation on this between Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki.

Further imagine opening this up to audience questioning, reserving the first query for one of the world’s leading spokespersons on the matter, someone with public approval ratings that tower over any candidate from either party. What would Pope Francis ask? And what would the candidates say? Suddenly, the climate debate might get a lot more interesting.