Changing weather patterns and a slightly shifting political landscape have spurred a renewed interest in climate change action among congressional Democrats but not with the Republicans who once expressed concern about the issue.
GOP senators including John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska still say that man-made climate change exists and deserves a response -- a position that sets them apart from many in their caucus who say warming is not occurring or is driven only by natural causes.
But they don't talk much about the issue anymore, nor do they propose mandatory programs to deal with it.
"I am always concerned about climate change, and I would like to see an incentive-based way of addressing some of the problems of greenhouse gas emissions," McCain told E&E Daily last week at the Capitol. But he added that he had not thought much about the issue "of late."
And his "incentive-based" solution likely would bear no resemblance to the cap-and-trade bill he first proposed a decade ago with former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
"I've never thought that raising people's taxes was the way we should approach the issue," McCain said, dodging a question about whether he now views all cap-and-trade measures in that light. Instead, he said the federal government could help bring down emissions by facilitating the production and export of natural gas and its broader use in transportation, and by incentivizing nuclear power.
McCain and Lieberman's long-ago effort made a brief appearance in this year's State of the Union address, when President Obama offered it as an example of how Congress could address climate change in a "bipartisan, market-based" way.
"I'm always glad to be mentioned in the State of the Union," said McCain, when asked about his former rival's words. But although he and Graham have since visited the White House to talk about immigration reform, both senators said the topic of climate change didn't come up.
McCain, who faced a tough primary challenge before being re-elected two and a half years ago, hasn't been out front on the issue since his failed 2008 turn as the GOP presidential nominee. He joined Republicans in the 111th Congress in painting cap and trade as "cap and tax," even as close allies Lieberman and Graham went to work on a new bill.
But Graham, too, has changed his tune considerably on climate change since collaborating with Lieberman and then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on cap-and-trade legislation.
"Cap and trade is dead," he told E&E Daily recently in a brief interview. "I think there's other ways to reduce carbon that are not so onerous to the economy."
Graham argued that U.S. EPA under Obama seems poised to implement a system akin to cap and trade through use of the Clean Air Act, but that would be a political mistake for Democrats.
"I think if they try to implement cap and trade through the EPA, a lot of Democrats would object," he said. Obama won't be running for re-election, but many of his Democratic allies in Congress will be next year.
"And if you use the regulatory system that way, you'd be running into trouble," he said.
The agency is in the early stages of crafting greenhouse gas rules for existing power plants, and some have urged it to consider adding flexibility mechanisms to those rules. But former Administrator Lisa Jackson and others stated repeatedly that cap and trade was not a model the agency was considering.
'Back on the reservation'
Graham left the cap-and-trade effort in April 2010, saying that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-Nev.) had not been sufficiently supportive.
But David Woodard, a political consultant for Graham's campaigns and political science professor at Clemson University, said Graham's transformation on the issue really started back home in the Palmetto State.
His work on the issue was a factor in the decision by three South Carolina county GOP parties to censure him (Greenwire, Nov. 11, 2009).
"That was something that was wrapped up in the Obama administration, and the conservative revulsion was against Obama and climate change, and immigration, and everything," he said.
His caution on climate change solidified, however, following the June 2010 primary defeat of former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), an incumbent Graham had backed who also had been active on climate change policy.
After that, Woodard said, "Lindsey Graham began to head back on the reservation."
In statements from that spring and summer, Graham occasionally rejected even the science of man-made climate change. A Mother Jones article from June 2010 quoted him as saying of man-made climate change: "I think they've oversold this stuff, quite frankly. I think they've been alarmist and the science is in question."
Woodard said all indications are that Graham will not face a tough primary challenge this year, in part because he has managed to get himself back in the good graces of the right-leaning Republicans of South Carolina. But he would be unlikely to spoil that now by revisiting climate change, he said.
Graham has no declared GOP challengers yet. But the South Carolinian has said he expects a contested primary and has armed himself by raising more than $7.6 million since 2007 and by veering to the right on a variety of issues.
Also up for re-election next year, Alexander hails from the more moderate state of Tennessee, and its general election voters will accept more from their elected officials when it comes to supporting environmental regulation. But he, too, is walking a fine line on the issue.
"But they still have to go through the eye of the needle in a Republican primary. And that was real dangerous for a lot of them," Woodard said.
Incentives, not regs
Alexander has taken a stand in favor of some air quality rules, collaborating on a "three pollutants" bill with Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and voting "no" on resolutions to strike down EPA rules, including for mercury and for smog- and soot-forming emissions that cross state lines.
Alexander is also quick to say he believes in the science of climate change.
"Almost all the major scientific organizations in the world suggest that humans are a significant cause of it," he said in a brief interview last week.
"If someone gave me that amount of evidence that my house was about to burn down, I'd buy some insurance," he added, noting that he had borrowed that analogy from the late President Reagan, a GOP icon.
But Alexander doesn't think regulation is as appropriate for carbon dioxide as it is for other emissions.
"In the first place, we don't have a technology to deal with carbon," he said. "And we know exactly what to do with sulfur, nitrogen and mercury. So we shouldn't operate coal plants without it."
The federal government should address carbon, he said, not through regulation but by doubling its research and development budget for low-carbon energy technology and aiming to make those options cheaper than incumbent industries. It could afford to do that by eliminating support for "mature industries" like wind power, he said.
"We'd very quickly come up with a lot of low-cost clean energy solutions, and that's the best way to clean up the air and lead the world into a cleaner environment," Alexander said.
Asked why more Republicans don't talk about climate change, Alexander pointed to a 2008 floor speech of his own in which he called for creation of a new "Manhattan Project" for advanced energy technologies, in part to address global warming.
But proponents of a Republican climate change mandate say that R&D is not enough to move the U.S. economy away from high-emissions fuels. In many cases, they say, technology already exists that could reduce carbon emissions from various sectors, but the incentives for companies to adopt them are not in place.
Advancing a GOP alternative
ConservAmerica Vice President for Government Affairs David Jenkins said Republicans who believe in man-made climate change don't seem to be confident about their own messaging.
Talking about climate change would only accentuate the divisions within the GOP on the issue at a time when neither party is advancing viable legislation on it.
"So a lot of them probably say, 'Well, what's the percentage on me out talking about this?'" he said. "'Because it can hurt me politically and give me some heartburn, and there's nothing on the table that I really have to deal with right now.'"
But Republicans could become more engaged as the public becomes more interested in climate change and begins demanding solutions from both parties, he added.
"The whole denial thing that has been happening for a while is eventually going to back people into a corner that is not very politically advantageous," he said.
Alex Bozmoski of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University, which is headed by former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) and which advocates for a revenue-neutral carbon tax, said EPA is moving forward with regulations that should spur Republicans to action.
Other than the greenhouse gas standard for new power plants, the agency is widely expected to propose an existing power plant standard.
Bozmoski called the forthcoming regulatory regime "the worst tax conceivable, because it raises no revenue, it buys down no rates, it's unpredictable, and it puts the future of our energy policy at the whim of administration bureaucrats."
"Republicans are complicit with this future -- this status quo -- unless we advance an alternative," he added.