Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida's rising Republican counterweight to President Obama's middle-class appeal, challenged the president's climate and energy policies head-on last night, couching the White House's regulatory posture on carbon dioxide as a job-killing strategy that undermines the security of ordinary Americans.
While Rubio framed much of the Republican response to the State of the Union address in personal terms, drawing from his life as a child of working-class Cuban immigrants, he also charged the president and his allies with arrogance and intolerance toward dissenting views, including on matters of climate change.
"There are valid reasons to be concerned about the president's plan to grow our government," Rubio said during the nationally televised speech. "But anytime anyone opposes the president's agenda, he and his allies usually respond by falsely attacking their motives.
"When we point out that no matter how many job-killing laws we pass, our government can't control the weather, he accuses us of wanting dirty water and dirty air."
Rubio's reference to "weather" -- as opposed to the more complex set of atmospheric changes that scientists broadly define as "climate change" -- served as a kind of counterpunch to those who have asserted that recent weather events, such as November's Superstorm Sandy or last year's gripping Midwestern drought, provide a beacon call for federal action to curb man-made emissions of greenhouse gases.
And it followed Obama's direct State of the Union reference to Sandy, in which he also cited the growing frequency and intensity of heat waves, droughts, wildfires and floods.
While Obama stopped short of calling for specific new regulations on existing coal-fired power plants, the nation's largest point source of carbon dioxide emissions, he challenged Congress to revive legislation that would create market-based incentives for businesses to reduce emissions.
And if Congress fails to act, he said, "I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy."
GOP turns the page
But Republican lawmakers, including some who supported cap-and-trade climate legislation as recently as three years ago, appear to have turned the page on such ideas and allowed more conservative voices, including climate science skeptics like Rubio, to set the party's message on climate change.
In fact, Rubio's views on climate change became a rallying point for environmental groups, which before yesterday's speeches began circulating some of the senator's recent statements on the issue.
Among them were positions laid out in an interview with the online magazine BuzzFeed, in which Rubio said regulating carbon emissions would have a disproportionate impact on the U.S. economy while doing little to improve the global environment, particularly if the United States forges ahead without other major emitting countries like China and India.
"Ultimately, if you look at the developing countries, which are not developing countries anymore, China, India and others, they're now the largest polluters in the world by far. ... To the extent that's what you're trying to get at, the United States is a country; it's not a planet. On the other hand, if we unilaterally impose these sorts of things on our economy, it would have a devastating impact."
As to the question of the role that man-made emissions of greenhouse gases have in altering the climate, Rubio said he understands that people say there is "significant scientific consensus on that issue, but I've actually seen reasonable debate on that principle. But beyond it, the secondary question is: 'Is there anything that government can do about that that will actually make a difference?'"
Those views drew fire from groups like the League of Conservation Voters, which issued a statement yesterday saying the Florida lawmaker's positions "put him at odds with scientific fact at a time when his own constituents are seeing the effects of climate change right outside their window."
"We can't trust Senator Rubio to address the problem if he doesn't even admit it exists," the League of Conservation Voters said.
On the contentious issue of government subsidies for clean energy technologies, Rubio raised the specter of the failed California solar panel maker Solyndra, which in 2011 declared bankruptcy and defaulted on a $535 million federal loan.
The Energy Department loan program, created in 2005, had been championed by the George W. Bush administration as a way to curb U.S. reliance on foreign energy sources, but it later became the target of GOP lawmakers critical of the Obama administration's even more robust embrace of clean energy subsidies like the production tax credit (PTC) for wind energy and the investment tax credit (ITC) for solar manufacturers.
Many Republicans, especially from oil- and gas-rich states, believe the Obama administration has overreached in embracing renewables and focused too much on the environmental downsides of coal, oil and natural gas.
"Of course solar and wind energy should be a part of our energy portfolio," Rubio said in his response speech. "But God also blessed America with abundant coal, oil and natural gas. Instead of wasting more taxpayer money on so-called clean energy companies like Solyndra, let's open up more federal lands for safe and responsible exploration. And let's reform our energy regulations so they're reasonable and based on common sense."
In a separate statement, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the newly appointed chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, said he was concerned about the president's agenda for energy, which he believes is hamstringing oil and gas development.
"Just in the last month, multiple lease sales on federal lands in Colorado have been pulled because of bureaucratic red tape," Bishop said. "The reality is that any progress made on this front was done despite [the Obama] administration's attempt to curb production and slow-walk new opportunities for development of our public lands and resources."