Republican candidates are prodded to acknowledge climate change in 2nd debate

By Evan Lehmann | 09/17/2015 08:19 AM EDT

Sen. Marco Rubio disputed the idea that he’s a climate skeptic in the second GOP debate, asserting instead that he opposes policies to reduce emissions if they burden the U.S. economy while failing to affect global temperatures.

Sen. Marco Rubio disputed the idea that he’s a climate skeptic in the second GOP debate, asserting instead that he opposes policies to reduce emissions if they burden the U.S. economy while failing to affect global temperatures.

"America is not a planet," said Florida’s Rubio.

The interaction occurred 149 minutes into the three-hour program, drawing in several candidates who repudiated the idea of enacting an "insurance policy" to guard against the risk of sea-level rise and other impacts of planetary warming. The question posed by CNN’s Jake Tapper referred to a cautionary program of emission cuts outlined recently by George Shultz, the former secretary of State under President Reagan.


Shultz’s standing as an iconic figure in the Republican establishment earned him little leeway in the swashbuckling debate held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Shultz supports a revenue-neutral carbon tax to address the unpriced release of emissions by American industry.

"Everyone makes a mistake once in a while, even George Shultz," said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has said that humans contribute to global warming.

Rubio has taken firm positions against blaming people for climbing temperatures as he appeals to conservative voters. Last year in an interview on ABC’s "This Week," Rubio said, "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it."

Rubio said last night that Democratic climate policies would cripple the U.S. economy. When Tapper noted that his question was about Shultz’s plan, Rubio said the former Reaganite "may have lined up with their [Democrats’] position on this issue."

"But here’s the bottom line, we’re not going to destroy our economy the way our left-wing government now wants to do," Rubio said. "Every proposal they put forward are going to be proposals that will make it harder to do business in America, that will make it harder to create jobs in America."

"So we are not going to destroy our economy," he added. "We are not going to make America a harder place to create jobs in order to pursue policies that will absolutely nothing, nothing to change our climate, to change our weather."

Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also criticized Democrats for pursuing expensive climate policies. Still, Christie touted his state’s effort to reduce emissions through nuclear energy and solar power.

"Nuclear needs to be back on the table in a significant way in this country if we want to go after this problem," Christie said.

Rubio also tried to defend himself against the skeptic label, saying scientists "can measure the climate."

"You can measure it," he added. "That’s not the issue we’re discussing. Here’s what I’m skeptical of. I’m skeptical of the decisions that the left wants us to make, because I know the impact those are going to have, and they’ll all be on our economy."

Obama offers Republicans some talking points

The timing of the debate lands squarely among high-profile events on climate change. Next week, Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, D.C., will mark the first papal address to Congress. It follows the release of his encyclical calling on people around the world to act morally in the face of climate change. And last month, President Obama released the Clean Power Plan, the most ambitious — and controversial — program undertaken in the United States to reduce emissions at power plants.

Last month, the candidates steered away from the climate issue in their first debate. No questions were asked by the program’s moderators, and the candidates didn’t volunteer their positions. That fits with the views of the Republican primary electorate, which tends to see warming as a low priority, according to Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank that supports conservative policies to address rising temperatures.

Many observers believe candidates would be on safe ground by attacking the Clean Power Plan as heavy-handed regulation. But those barbs have been largely absent, perhaps in part because the price of gasoline is low, giving traditional Republican attacks around Democrats’ fossil fuel policies less momentum, Taylor said.

Still, he believes there’s room for the candidates to talk in positive terms about climate change, even if it’s driven by strategies of self-promotion. Polls show that many conservatives support policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions, Taylor said, excluding those who identify with the tea party.

"I think there might very well might be an advantage for Republicans to speak sensibly about climate," he said. "There is more Republican support for a nonorthodox answer than people would like to think. And in a crowded field, distinguishing yourself from all the rest might very well help."

As the candidates were preparing for last night’s event, President Obama took it on himself to describe the Republican view of the issue. Speaking to the Business Roundtable, the president said that, in the candidates’ views, "everything is dark, everything is terrible."

He went on to say that the price of solar energy technology is nearing a "stunning" level that could transform electricity generation. He also referred to the international negotiations on climate change in Paris beginning in December.

"Instead of us spending a lot of time fighting science, let’s go with science," Obama said of climate change. "We usually do better when we’re on the side of facts and evidence and science. Just as a general rule, that’s proved to be our strength as Americans."

Inhofe: Where are the denials?

In an early primary field crammed with 16 candidates, presidential hopefuls could find traction by attacking Obama’s climate policies, said Jeremy Carl, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution who has advised a number of the candidates on energy and climate.

"From a strategic perspective, I would certainly encourage them to focus on the policy problems with the Democrats’ proposals on these issues and not get drawn into these scientific debates," he said. "The danger is politicians don’t want to get involved with litigating science. It’s not useful."

Carl, who said he’s met with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ben Carson, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, said the candidates sometimes ask him how to frame the issue of climate change. But raising the issue "doesn’t differentiate them that much," he said.

"They all want to talk about energy," Carl said. "To varying degrees, they’ll bring up climate, but they’re not usually looking to go on offense about it."

That’s a sharp change from 2008, when Sen. John McCain of Arizona supported a cap-and-trade program to address rising temperatures as the Republican nominee. McCain said yesterday that the candidates are "all over the place" on climate now.

Asked how he would talk about climate change today, McCain said: "Well, I think that it’s an issue. But I don’t think that we’re going to be effective without the use of nuclear power."

Another lawmaker, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, urged the candidates to be "courageous" by rejecting the idea of climate change.

"I’d love to be in their body answering that question," Inhofe said yesterday.