Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour jumped back into the climate debate yesterday, seemingly eager to face the wrath of environmentalists.
The longtime Republican leader and possible 2012 presidential candidate starred as the key GOP witness at the first Senate hearing on the issue since the House narrowly passed a major global warming bill last month. Following the path of recent Republican vocalizers like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and ex-Sen. George Allen of Virginia, Barbour summed up the plan as an economic catastrophe.
"It is hard to believe that at a time when growing our economy is our No. 1 priority, Congress is considering a bill that would reduce economic growth," Barbour said. The Senate has yet to introduce its version of a mandatory greenhouse gas cap, but Democratic leaders said recently that they would build on the House bill.
Barbour's role as the GOP testifier-of-the-day comes as the party seeks a central voice on climate change. GOP members speaking out on the subject recently range from Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who called the House plan "imperialism," to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who praised the proposal. That measure, sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), would curb emissions 17 percent by 2020 via a mandatory cap on greenhouse gases. It squeaked through the chamber on a 219-212 vote in June.
Republicans are navigating through treacherous waters on climate change politically, according to some analysts. They need campaign ammunition heading into 2010 congressional elections, but also risk being seen as obstructionists if they push back against climate controls too much, they say.
"Republicans do nothing to enhance their brand by near-unified opposition to climate change legislation, even though imposing a defeat on [President] Obama might provide very modest help in the midterm election. A transition to a renewable energy economy is inevitable, and a strategy of just saying no will help keep them in the minority for some years to come," said Thomas Mann, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
Other analysts, though, such as Claremont McKenna College political science professor John Pitney, said Republicans have little to lose with attack strategies like Barbour's, considering that many polls show that the economy looms far larger in voter's minds than climate change.
Barbour could emerge as one of the leading GOP leaders on the issue, since he carries "less baggage" than Gingrich or Allen, he said. Allen ran into political trouble in 2006 after calling one of his opponent's supporters "macaca" during his Senate re-election bid. Gingrich has high negatives among the public, Pitney said.
Yet Purdue University political science professor Leigh Raymond said Barbour is too polarizing to be an effective climate voice for the GOP.
"The irony of someone from a state that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina speaking forcefully doesn't help [him]," Raymond said. "His deep roots as a defender of large energy interests who are some of the strongest opponents to any movement on climate change also weakens his credibility on this issue."
Environmentalists wasted little time this week in labeling Barbour as a planetary disaster tainted by his work as a lobbyist in the 1990s for electricity generators.
Barbour surged into the energy lexicon in 2001, when he sent a memo to then-Vice President Dick Cheney urging the Bush administration to renege on promises to control carbon dioxide emissions. Within weeks, Bush changed his position on early promises to address global warming. Many blamed Barbour as the lobbyist behind the policy shift, a charge that re-emerged this week as soon as Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) called him to testify in front of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
"If we fail to make a clean energy economy that starts with passage of the Waxman-Markey bill -- future generations of Mississippians will curse the name of politicians like Haley Barbour for their myopic greed, for lining their pockets with money from carbon polluters while devoting their efforts to the state's self-destruction," wrote Joseph Romm on the blog "Climate Progress." Romm is a former acting assistant secretary at the Energy Department and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a group with close ties to the Obama administration.
Other advocates, like Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, also sent out memos criticizing Barbour's lobbying past, in which he represented utilities like Southern Co., which is heavily reliant on coal.
Barbour shrugged off the criticism yesterday. He joked that he is "glad to be known by many enemies." Standing up against the House bill will not cause problems for Republicans politically, he said, because opponents are "stopping something bad from happening."
"Politically, the worst thing for proponents would be to succeed and the damage be done to the economy," he said.
Barbour denied charges that he is opposed to action on climate change generally, despite the 2001 memo. That document came at a time when there was insufficient evidence about carbon dioxide's role as a pollutant, he said. Even as he said cap and trade is going nowhere because it is a tax, he said it is necessary to take steps to curb greenhouse gases using nuclear power as part of the equation.
"I'm not a scientist," he said. "But I accept for the purposes of going forward that it would be good for the climate if we reduced emissions."