- The Washington Times - Monday, September 21, 2015

Last week’s Republican presidential debate may have provided a window into how GOP candidates will handle the thorny issue of climate change, with a number of White House hopefuls skirting a debate on the science of global warming and instead taking aim at the costs and consequences of President Obama’s prescription to save the planet — a strategy that some analysts say cedes the issue to Democrats.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who suspended his campaign Monday, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie each passed on the chance to dispute the science of climate change Wednesday in the second debate of the Republican primary process. Instead, the three men — each of whom trails businessman Donald Trump in the polls by a significant margin — took direct aim at Mr. Obama’s ambitious climate agenda, which centers on the first nationwide limits on carbon pollution from power plants.

“We are not going to destroy our economy the way the left-wing government we’re under now wants to do,” Mr. Rubio said after being asked about climate change. “We are not going to destroy our economy. We are not going to make America a harder place to create jobs in order to pursue policies that will do absolutely nothing to change our economy, to change our climate, to change our weather.”

Mr. Christie agreed, saying “massive intervention” from the federal government isn’t necessary to reduce emissions. He pointed to his record in New Jersey and said the state was able to cut pollution without being forced by Washington to take drastic measures.

Mr. Walker said the president’s plans would destroy “thousands of manufacturing jobs” in Wisconsin, but passed on the chance to discuss the science of climate change itself.

Other candidates, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, proudly cast themselves as climate change skeptics, but the broader takeaway was that many Republicans may avoid a fight with Democrats on global warming and instead opt for debate on the best ways to address the issue.

Some Republican strategists say such a tack ultimately will prove ineffective and will force GOP candidates into a climate change debate on Democratic terms.

“Republicans are going to argue that what [Democrats are] proposing is ridiculously costly and it’s not going to do anything, which is good as far as it does,” said Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist and president of the lobbying firm MWR Strategies. “The irreducible minimum of the issue is once you yield on the science, all you’re talking about is the terms of surrender. The smart folks see that. Most political operatives, not being smart folks, don’t see that. You’re going to have campaign operatives say, ‘Let’s talk about economics.’”

Democrats seem intent on painting all Republican presidential candidates with a broad brush and are rolling out a strategy of casting the GOP as a party of science deniers.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent running for the Democratic presidential nomination, live-tweeted the debate and challenged Republicans to accept the science on climate change.

Even after the debate — and the seemingly moderate tack embraced by Mr. Rubio, Mr. Walker and Mr. Christie — he continued to go on the offensive.

“The debate is over. Climate change is real and caused by human activity. It’s already causing devastating problems around the world,” he tweeted Friday night.

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley also have accused Republicans of rejecting science on global warming.

The issue will remain in the spotlight this week when Mr. Obama meets with Pope Francis, who earlier this year released an unprecedented encyclical challenging the U.S. and other countries to take far more aggressive action against climate change.

The president is looking at a key climate change conference in Paris in December where he hopes to emerge with a landmark global deal to address carbon and other emissions.

That conference will be held a month before the Iowa caucuses, the first nominating contests for Republican and Democratic presidential candidates.

Political analysts say Republicans, while perhaps backing off their critiques of the science of climate change, still can benefit in the primary race by opposing any real action.

“In the primaries, appealing to the most conservative Republicans — who generally oppose climate action — appears to be the safest route to winning the nomination, but in the general election, opposing climate action will cost the candidate votes,” said Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. “The politics of climate change in the GOP appears to be swinging back to where it was in 2009, when more Republican members of Congress were willing to acknowledge the problem and were willing to identify possible policy responses.”

Mr. Maibach pointed to George Mason research showing voters are much more likely to support a congressional or presidential candidate who supports climate action.

Other polling, however, has shown that global warming is far less important to most Americans than the economy and a host of other issues.

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