Economy Keeps Global Warming on Back Burner for 2012

GOP candidates can use global warming beliefs to set themselves apart, but at their own peril.

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Still shunned as fringe ideologues, or worse, by Democrats and much of the formal scientific community, skeptics of global warming were nonetheless celebratory as they gathered in Washington last week for the conservative Heartland Institute's annual climate change conference. And for good reason. Climate change legislation has been on the back burner since 2009 and an increasing number of Republican lawmakers now call themselves skeptics as well. Indeed, the tide of the debate—at least politically—has turned in their favor. [See a slide show of 10 animals that are threatened by global warming.]

Political experts say that with the economy at the forefront of the nation's focus, concerns over global warming won't carry much weight in the 2012 election. At most, climate change will be just another place for candidates, especially those in the GOP, to distinguish themselves from their opponents, if they dare. "[Climate change is] part of an undercurrent. The race is going to be about the economy and the fiscal crisis. So to the degree that one or several of the candidates can work the story line that some of these concerns are having an impact on the economy, that will be a marginal help," says pollster Scott Rasmussen. "But it's not a central issue by any stretch of the imagination."

Since as far back as 2009, when Republicans led the fight against cap-and-trade legislation in the Senate, the party as a whole has been reticent to say global warming is a problem. For instance, when voting on legislation in March that would ban the Environmental Protection Agency's power to regulate greenhouse gases, every Republican on the Energy and Commerce committee refused to acknowledge by vote that climate change exists and is caused by humans.

This reflects a trend toward skepticism among voters too. Public opinion polls show that Republicans are more unsure about climate change than ever. And last year's midterms also demonstrated that climate change advocates, like former South Carolina Republican Rep. Bob Inglis, who lost his seat, aren't so popular within the party anymore. [See a slide show of 10 reasons Americans aren't talking about climate change.]

The current front-runner in GOP primary polls, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, seems to have the most to lose from his position on the issue, says David Tuerck, executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute, a conservative research organization based in Massachusetts. In the first town hall meeting of his campaign, Romney stood by his long-established belief that global warming is real and that humans contribute to the problem. "For Romney to do that is for Romney to take responsibility for Romneycare. It doesn't help his campaign a bit," says Tuerck. "This is not going to do anyone good to attach oneself to that crusade."

While former ambassador to China and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has a similar position, the rest of the top GOP contenders have decided to take sides with the skeptics. Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, for instance, has made her point clear on the House floor, saying she believes warming is due to natural causes. She adamantly opposed cap-and-trade back in 2009 and has been one of the harshest critics of the Environmental Protection Agency, calling it the "job-killing organization of America" in the GOP primary debate last month. [Check out our new energy intelligence blog.]

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has also stood firm with the skeptics. "There is climate change. There's always been climate change," he said on Fox News last week. "The science indicates most of it, if not all of it, is caused by natural causes. And as to the potential human contribution to that, there's a great scientific dispute to that issue."

Regardless of where candidates stand, few primary voters will make climate change a deciding factor, says Anthony Watts, a meteorologist and blogger at the prominent skeptics blog Watts Up With That? "While there may be some candidates that get pooh-poohed because they might embrace the global warming issue, it won't be a deal-breaker," he says.