The Shifting GOP

Gage Skidmore

Several weeks ago, voters got their first taste of Mitt Romney’s stance on environmental policy since he announced his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. “I believe the world is getting warmer, and I believe that humans have contributed to that,” he said on June 3 at a town hall meeting in Manchester, New Hampshire. Romney went on to advocate for the expansion of renewable energy production and cutting down American dependence on foreign oil, though he included nuclear and coal energy in his list of “alternatives.”

Conservative commentator and talk radio host Rush Limbaugh responded with a comment that reflects the views of many Republican primary voters. “Bye, bye nomination,” he said of Romney’s chances on his radio program before going on to label global climate change a “hoax.”

It could be candidates are looking to hedge their bets when it comes to appealing to New Hampshire voters; to show a little green, as it were. “There is a strong environmental movement in New Hampshire,” said senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain of Arizona when asked about Romney’s comments. “I’m not sure…what the best way to approach the issue is.” Romney currently leads in New Hampshire polls by a double-digit margin.

The politics surrounding climate change in the GOP are complicated. Former President George W. Bush, like Romney, admitted he believed in anthropogenic climate change during both terms of his presidency and spoke about the need to reduce CO2 emissions. But Bush, like Romney, opposed solutions proposed by the Democrats, including a so-called carbon tax and a cap-and-trade carbon exchange.

Despite his comments in New Hampshire, Romney indicated in his 2011 autobiography that he does not support “radical feel-good politics like a unilateral cap-and-trade mandate,” and that an oil or carbon tax would be a “nonstarter.” Similar views have been espoused by other Republican presidential candidates, most notably Newt Gingrich’s insistence that climate change is the left’s “newest excuse to take control of our lives” and Michelle Bachmann’s push to eliminate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency entirely. The nature of the rhetoric on climate change within the GOP presidential race indicates at this point in the election cycle that any Republican nominee for president would oppose most measures to address greenhouse gas emissions.

Like Bush and many other politicians, Romney has a history of changing his position on environmental issues. During his term as governor of Massachusetts, Romney supported strict air pollution regulations and a carbon-trading pact among northeastern states, calling the latter plan “good for business.” But during his 2008 presidential run, Romney said that he was “unsure” of human impact on global climate and cautioned against any policy that might address it.

The language Romney, McCain, Bush and other serious Republican presidential candidates past and present have used to address climate change and other environmental issues usually hints at how they believe these issues will resonate best with voters. When it comes to the environment, candidates tend to emphasize how increased renewable energy and decreased dependence on foreign oil can create U.S. jobs. Romney has said he believes in investing in renewable energy and cleaner technology, but distances himself from any policy measures, such as taxes, that may seem threatening to business and industry.

This approach can be seen as helping the environmental and scientific communities by finally acknowledging that the earth’s climate is indeed warming, and that we’re all partly responsible. But, New Hampshire aside, the reluctance within the GOP to advocate real action on climate change—often due to ideological resistance among the Republican base and particularly within the Tea Party—has left candidates like Mitt Romney with little room to develop and push for strong legislative solutions.