While the major presidential candidates agree global warming is real, the Republicans are sharply divided over what to do about it — even as they chase votes in Florida, where the predicted risk of rising sea waters and more severe storms is anything but a passing concern.
Strategists in both parties say the political landscape for global warming has shifted dramatically in recent years with a broad coalition of environmentalists, business leaders, evangelical Christians and national security advocates — Democrats and Republicans alike — urging concrete actions to stem the effects.
The issue is likely to interest voters not only in Florida's primary next Tuesday but in the rush of primaries that follow. Nine of the more than 20 states with contests on Feb. 5 have passed or are considering programs to cap greenhouse gases, as is Maine, which holds its caucuses on Feb. 2.
"Climate change is real. It's happening. I believe human beings are contributing to it," former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said during a debate in Iowa when pressed on the issue.
But Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney adamantly oppose a mandatory cap on the greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, that are blamed for the earth's warming. Both have borrowed a page from President Bush's strategy by maintaining that the answer is to free the country from its dependence on foreign oil.
That's in marked contrast to Sen. John McCain, who is battling Giuliani and Romney for the lead in Florida. The Arizona senator has been among Congress' loudest voices for aggressive action, co-sponsoring legislation in 2003 that called for capping greenhouse gases — principally carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels — and frequently chiding the Bush administration for its failure to support mandatory measures to reduce such emissions.
It's a turnaround from when McCain ran for president eight years ago and was dogged in New Hampshire by a critic in a penguin suit protesting McCain's skepticism about climate change. McCain cited a series of Senate hearings he held on issue for convincing him the problem is real.
The so-called "cap-and-trade" approach — where companies would have pollution allowances they could sell if they fall below a cap, or buy credits if they found they could not meet the requirements — also has been endorsed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has called protecting the earth from warming "a moral issue."
The leading Democratic candidates — Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards — have called for a mandatory 80 percent cut in greenhouse gases from 1990 levels by mid-century and have outlined global warming proposals more stringent than Democratic legislation before the Senate.
But Giuliani has no taste for mandates on carbon emissions, saying they make no sense.
"The best way to deal with it is through energy independence," he argues, calling for building more nuclear power plants, promoting conservation and alternative fuels and more research into capturing carbon dioxide from coal plants. He argues mandates to cap greenhouse gases don't make sense.
Some environmentalists say they're not surprised by Giuliani's position given his association with one of the most influential law/lobbying firms in Washington that represent energy interests. Giuliani joined Houston-based Bracewell-Giuliani as a partner three years ago.
"Bracewell-Giuliani has been the go-to place for companies that are opposed to clean air and global warming requirements," says Frank O'Donnell, executive director of Clean Air Watch, a Washington advocacy group that regularly has been on opposing sides of the Giuliani firm's clients.
Giuliani's campaign declined to comment Wednesday on his connection to the firm.
Romney has a similar recipe for dealing with global warming.
"We can dramatically reduce our CO2 emissions by putting ourselves realistically on a course of energy independence," he told New Hampshire voters, adding that he opposes any mandatory, across-the-board carbon limits unless other countries take steps as well.
"It's global warming, not America warming," has been his standard reply when asked for his views on regulating carbon dioxide.
The global warming issue, despite a string of recent revelations suggesting it to be ever more serious, didn't bubble to the top as an issue in either Iowa or New Hampshire, and McCain's call for action may have contributed to his loss to Romney in economically ravaged Michigan, where the auto industry carries great weight.
But that may not be the case in Florida, with its 1,200 miles of coastline, history of severe storms and unique sea coral. All would be affected by the type of warming scientists predict.
"This is a state that's uniquely vulnerable," said Gerald Karnas, director of the Florida Climate Change Project at Environmental Defense, an advocacy group. "Any candidate that wants to credibly campaign in Florida right now needs to move beyond the rhetoric and platitudes and get very specific about what they will do. ... People are hungry for solutions."
Ken Mehlman, former Republican National Committee chairman and manager of President Bush's 2004 re-election, says Republicans can't afford to ignore climate change. He said addressing the issue with specific solutions is key to returning independents to the GOP after the party lost them in the 2006 elections.
There has emerged "a whole new constituency ... a left-right coalition" including military leaders worried about national defense, religious leaders, environmentalists, sportsmen and "a who's who of American business" that may once have been climate skeptics but now are demanding action to reduce greenhouse emissions, Mehlman said at a recent panel discussion about politics and climate change.
Said Joe Lockhart, White House press secretary for former President Clinton: "We're very near politically to a tipping point where it's very bad politics to try to stop" action on climate change.
"We may have passed the tipping point," added Tucker Eskew, a former senior Bush White House aide.
Source: AP News