Across the board, Americans are less concerned about climate change than they used to be. But with Republicans far outpacing Democrats in terms of concern about climate change and (dis)belief that humans are causing it, never has the climate issue been as partisan as it is today. And nowhere is that pattern more evident than it is in the strong skepticism and "evolving" positions on climate change held by most of the Republican candidates for President of the United States.
For many American voters, Republicans and otherwise, climate change simply isn't a major concern. But for others—those who do accept that human activity is causing the earth to warm faster—learning that a preferred candidate (or candidates) thinks climate change is a hoax could potentially be a deal-breaker, both in the primaries and in the general election.
From Skeptics to Flip-Floppers to Believers, here's how the Republican candidates and one possible candidate stack up on climate change. (All artwork: DonkeyHotey CC via Flickr. Some rights reserved)
Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain
In the first official week of his candidacy, Gov. Perry made headlines when he declared in New Hampshire that the "theory" of climate change is a hoax concocted by data-manipulating scientists to keep research money coming in to their projects [see video below].
Unlike most of the other top-tier Republicans vying for the party's nomination, however, Governor Perry does not have to backpedal from or tweak previous statements about climate change. He's been a skeptic all along. In 2007, Rick Perry jumped on the Al Gore-bashing bandwagon, saying about his former employer:
"I've heard Al Gore talk about man-made global warming so much that I'm starting to think that his mouth is the leading source of all that supposedly deadly carbon dioxide."
In 2009, U.S. Representative Michelle Bachmann said there's no reason to worry about carbon dioxide because it's a "natural byproduct of nature. Carbon dioxide is natural."
"Carbon dioxide is natural," Bachmann said on the floor of the House of Representatives. "It is not harmful. It is a part of earth's life cycle. And yet we're being told that we have to reduce this natural substance and reduce the American standard of living to create an arbitrary reduction that is naturally occurring in the Earth."
Seen on the Bachmann website: "I will stop the Environmental Protection Agency’s cap-and-trade rules in their tracks."
Herman Cain: 'It's a scam.'
Environmental protection is not very high among Herman Cain's policy priorities. When asked anything about energy, environment or climate, Cain often stumbles, falling back on his default position of doing whatever he can to get government out of the way.
Speaking about the now debunked "climategate" scandal, Cain was critical of Democrats for falling for the "scientifically manufactured results" that support the science of climate change. "This is no longer a controversy. This is conclusive. And once again, liberals choose to ignore the facts," he said.
Citing the Dept. of Energy's "Billion Ton Study" as evidence, Cain also calls green energy a joke, declaring to a group of Iowans this spring, "I have studied it!" [see video]
"If we did all of the solar, all of the wind in every wind corridor in this country we could, it might do 5 percent of our energy needs," Cain said.
But the "Billion Ton Study," originally published in 2005 and freshly updated in 2011 actually has nothing to do with wind and solar, and everything to do with biomass and biofuels.
In 2008, Newt Gingrich did a PSA with then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in which the pair called for action on climate change. And as recently as January of 2011, Gingrich stood by the ad with Pelosi, saying he meant exactly what he said in it.
But appearing in a commercial calling for action on climate change alongside a Democrat who was at one time the Republican Party's public enemy number one was not doing much for Gingrich politically. And feeling pressure to apologize for what Politico called his "love seat predicament," Gingrich eventually recanted, sort of, explaining that the message of the PSA with Pelosi was misunderstood:
"I was trying to make a point that we shouldn't be afraid to debate the left, even on the environment," Gingrich said in July. "Obviously it was misconstrued, and it's probably one of those things I wouldn't do again."
A former environmental studies professor, Gingrich once appeared to be satisfied with the scientific community's position that human activity is causing climate change, has now moved from the position that "the evidence is sufficient" to one where he now says there should be public hearings on climate change and the National Academy of Sciences findings vis-à-vis climate.
Ron Paul: 'The greatest hoax in many years..."
More comfortable talking about property rights, financial policy and (the scaling back of) government bureaucracy, Texas congressman Ron Paul seems to be largely agnostic about global warming; one day proposing solutions for carbon pollution, the next day calling global warming a hoax and questioning climate science.
But Ron Paul hasn't always paraded the "It's a Hoax" banner.
On the campaign trail in 2007, Ron Paul framed the climate change issue in the context of enforcing individual property rights, arguing that big emitters of carbon dioxide should not be allowed to freely pollute the air because it is a violation of others' property rights. If they want to pollute the environment, Paul argued, they should be taxed for doing so.
Way back then, Paul would also say that he believed human activity was responsible for some amount of global warming, but that the science was still unclear on the matter.
Like many of his fellow Republicans (and Republican presidential candidates), however, Ron Paul deviated from his earlier belief that human activity is behind a changing climate, saying to Fox News' Sean Hannity in 2009: "the greatest hoax I think that has been around for many, many years if not hundreds of years has been this hoax on the environment and global warming."
Sarah Palin: "The causes are not important"
Although former Alaska governor and current Fox News contributor Sarah Palin hasn't thrown her hat in the ring for the Republican nomination for president again in 2012, she hasn't ruled out the possibility yet either, saying recently in Iowa that she is still considering a run.
But where candidate Palin would come down on climate change is not at all clear, especially considering her public wavering on the issue.
In 2007, as Alaska Governor, Palin formed a sub-cabinet to prepare and implement a climate change strategy for the state. And while she publicly recognized the realities of a changing climate, she usually added that she did not believe climate change was caused by human activity. In 2008, just before being named as John McCain's vice-presidential running mate, Palin said: "A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location. I'm not one, though, who would attribute it to being man-made."
But Palin then tweaked her viewpoint a bit to fall in line with that of her running mate, presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, who was very clearly in the camp that climate change is real and that it is human-caused.
"The causes are not important," Palin would say, trying to sidestep the big question about the causes and straddle her seemingly contradictory positions.
But like fellow candidates who have changed their tune in light of mounting pressure from the right, Palin has since called the scientific community into question, charging that scientists deliberately manipulated data.
However, now that Palin is no longer bound by the ties to Sen. McCain, will she, like some of her fellow candidates adjust her position again to appeal to the right wing of the Republican Party? A party which has an increasingly harder time believing the science of climate change.
Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman
Mitt Romney: "The world is getting warmer... I believe that humans contribute to that."
Mitt Romney is as clear about his position on climate change as he is about the proposed solutions to address it. In short, Romney believes in the scientific community's assessment that climate change is real and that human activity is behind it. But he doesn't appear to be too enthusiastic about doing something about it, saying in a 2010 climate policy statement no longer available on the Romney website"
The U.S. "Cap and trade effectively constitutes an enormous, hidden tax on the American people and American businesses."
More recently, Romney clarified his position at a stop in New Hampshire. “I don’t speak for the scientific community, of course, but I believe the world’s getting warmer," Romney said in June. "I can’t prove that, but I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer. And number two, I believe that humans contribute to that."
When Mitt Romney's belief in the science of climate change is pitted against the climate skepticism of other frontrunners Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann, the climate change issue could, ironically, end up playing a critical role in the race for the Republican nomination. And in a general election, Romney's moderate position on climate is one that would more likely garner support from undecided "pro-environment" voters than would the extreme climate-skeptical stance of his Republican opponents... that is if he can ever get past the climate-skeptical stance held in such high regard by party activists.
Jon Huntsman: 'I respect science.'
Seeing a political opening soon after Gov. Rick Perry questioned global warming science and the scientists that back it, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman tweeted: “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”
In a similar shout-out to science, Huntsman told Time Magazine in May of 2011: “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.”
But Like Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman is not winning any fans among the emboldened climate-skeptical members of the Republican Party by so publicly acknowledging the human contribution to climate change (nor is he winning any points from that same hard right for serving in the Obama administration as Ambassador to China).
But Huntsman, who calls himself a center-right candidate in a center-right country, is the only Republican candidate who both believes in anthropogenic climate change and is willing to talk about policy solutions to address it.
"In order to get to the heart and soul of carbon emission, which is a problem, because it leads to polluted skies and air quality problems and climate change, we must put a value on carbon," Huntsman said Until we put a value on carbon we're never going to be able to get serious about dealing with climate change longer term."
"Putting a value on carbon either suggests that you go to a carbon tax or you get a cap-and-trade system underway."