Obama’s coal plan unscathed in GOP debate

By Evan Lehmann | 01/15/2016 08:17 AM EST

Republican candidates for the White House paraded through issues like terrorism and taxes in a barbed debate last night that omitted global warming two days after President Obama signaled new efforts to limit coal mining on federal land.

Republican candidates for the White House paraded through issues like terrorism and taxes in a barbed debate last night that omitted global warming two days after President Obama signaled new efforts to limit coal mining on federal land.

The seven candidates in the prime-time debate on the Fox Business Network described Obama as a damaging presence who’s trying to liberalize the nation through sprawling government programs in health care and economically harmful regulations. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) called the president a "petulant child."

Yet none of them responded to Obama’s comments in Tuesday’s State of the Union address around his plans to change federal coal leasing to more fully account for its emissions. Obama and Democratic candidates hoping to succeed him are often featuring climate change as a key economic and natural security issue.

GOP candidates focused on terrorism and taxes last night, ignoring climate change and energy policy and even passing up a chance to slam pending Obama administration plans to rein in federal coal leasing. | Photo courtesy of AP Images.

"But don’t think that this is not a problem for all of us," Obama said yesterday of climate change in a speech in Baton Rouge, La. "That young lady was asking about curing cancer — well, we might cure cancer, but if temperatures have gone up 2, 3 degrees around the planet, 4 degrees, and oceans are rising, we’re going to have more problems than medical science can cure."

The debate coincides with a flare-up around Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s past comments about a proposed cap-and-trade program in Florida. The conservative website Breitbart News published a story Wednesday with video from 2008 that shows Rubio, then speaker of the state House, arguing that Florida should enact its own cap-and-trade program in order to get federal funding from an "inevitable" national climate program.

"First, Florida should position itself for what I believe is inevitable, and that is a federal cap-and-trade program," Rubio says in the video posted on Breitbart News.

He adds: "Florida should do everything it can to be an early complier so it can access early compliance funds and so that it can help influence what that cap and trade looks like at the federal level. So I’m in favor of giving the Department of Environmental Protection a mandate that they go out and design a cap-and-trade or a carbon tax program and bring it back to the Legislature for ratification sometime in the next two years."

‘It’s a problem’

Rubio’s campaign responded quickly. It announced Wednesday that Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the Senate’s most vocal climate skeptic, is supportive of Rubio. And it also published a blog post asserting that Rubio has always opposed cap and trade.

The video appears to have previously surfaced in 2010, when Charlie Crist, as an independent, used it to attack Rubio during a race for his current U.S. Senate seat.

Rubio’s campaign argues that Breitbart News, like Crist, showed only a portion of the 2008 video, which appears to be a television interview. In the video, Rubio goes on to suggest that he supports innovation above cap and trade, which he says he would not want implemented.

"The way we’re going to clean up our environment, the way we’re going to lower carbon emissions is not through government mandates," Rubio said in a video clip of the same interview posted on his campaign website. "It’s through the American innovator."

It’s unclear if the new attention on his past views will harm him among voters as he and his Republican opponents race toward Iowa’s caucus on Saturday, Feb. 1. Some observers believe that it could expose him to attacks as candidates try to consolidate support in an electorate that’s fragmented by the large field of White House hopefuls.

"It’s a problem for them," said Jeremy Carl, a GOP energy adviser and a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Rubio’s comments on carbon trading could feed into a broader narrative about his willingness to compromise with Democrats on other topics like immigration, he said.

"Any candidate is going to be smart to raise it if they can," Carl said. "To support cap and trade in a GOP primary is going to be very damaging."

Carbon pricing and dirty words

Candidates like Christie might try to contrast his decision to withdraw his state from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a nine-state carbon trading program, with the idea that Rubio encouraged a similar program in Florida, said Barry Rabe, a political scientist at the University of Michigan.

"It is the dirty word of climate change," Rabe, who is writing a book about carbon trading, said of cap and trade.

Other strategists said the rehashed revelations are unlikely to damage Rubio’s support among voters. Christian Ferry, who served as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s campaign manager until he dropped out, believes that climate issues are unimportant to GOP primary voters.

"I think voters who would prioritize opposition to cap and trade high on their issues set were never voters particularly open to Marco Rubio," Ferry said in an email.

Climate activists are trying to make warming an issue before the first votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses in about two weeks. NextGen Climate, the group founded by billionaire Tom Steyer, released a video hours before yesterday’s debate showing Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas interacting with an activist earlier this week in New Hampshire.

Cruz is seen responding to a question about the military’s assessment that climate change poses national security risks.

"No, I think we should follow the science and follow the evidence," Cruz said. "The science, the satellite data, shows there has been no significant warming for 18 years."

When the activist asserted that the Pentagon disagrees with him, Cruz said: "Yes, but the Pentagon has been overly politicized. And it’s a mistake, and it’s not doing the job it should protecting the country under this administration."

In a statement released by NextGen, Michael Breen, president of the Truman National Security Project, claimed that the senator’s response is "reckless and irresponsible."

The League of Conservation Voters, meanwhile, released its first digital ad in support of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. It’s meant to energize Democratic voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early-voting states by contrasting Clinton’s climate record with Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s comments on warming, which he has asserted is a "hoax."

"Who believes in global warming? Raise your hand. Nobody?" the ad shows Trump saying at a GOP rally.