On Climate Change, GOP Candidates Race to the Fringe

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The issue demonstrates how Republicans are encouraged to take needlessly extreme positions with little real world benefit

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In order to understand how talk radio encourages politicians to make needlessly polarizing statements, ponder the recent back and forth on climate change among two GOP primary candidates.

Last week, Mitt Romney spoke about the issue in New Hampshire. He opposes a "cap-and-trade" limit on carbon emissions. Like the vast majority of climate scientists, however, he believes that climate change is happening, and that humans are playing some role. He's held that position for awhile, but his recent answer on the subject prompted the following comment from Rush Limbaugh: "Bye-bye, nomination. Another one down. We're in the midst here of discovering that this is all a hoax. The last year has established that the whole premise of man-made global warming is a hoax, and we still have presidential candidates that want to buy into it!"

That happened on Tuesday. As if in response, Rick Santorum said this Wednesday on the Rush Limbaugh program:

There's a variety of factors that contribute to the earth warming and cooling, and to me this is an opportunity for the left to create - it's a beautifully concocted scheme because they know that the earth is gonna cool and warm.  It's been on a warming trend so they said, "Oh, let's take advantage of that and say that we need the government to come in and regulate your life some more because it's getting warmer," just like they did in the seventies when it was getting cool, they needed the government to come in and regulate your life because it's getting cooler. It's just an excuse for more government control of your life, and I've never been for any scheme or even accepted the junk science behind the whole narrative.

Set aside the merits of the issue - let's just talk politics. Which of these arguments is going to appeal to the biggest anti-carbon-tax, anti-cap-and-trade alliance? And which would prove least popular:

1) Climate change may be happening - we may even be causing it. But even if that's true, now isn't the right time to address it. Now is the time to focus on jobs. 

2) Climate change may be happening - we may even be causing it. But a cold, rational look at a carbon tax or cap-and-trade show that the substantial costs either would impose on our economy outweigh the benefits. We're better off trying to solve the problem by investing in new technology.

3) Climate change may be happening, but we aren't causing it.

4) Climate change isn't happening, and the people who say otherwise are mistaken.

5) Climate change isn't happening, and the people who say otherwise are engaged in a widespread ideological conspiracy - they know it isn't happening, but are pretend otherwise so that they can control your lives.

To me, number five has by far the least appeal in a general election, seeing as how it's wildly implausible. It's arguably a paranoid delusion, and even posits some alternate 1970s when claims about global cooling successfully vested liberals with significant control over the lives of Americans. But the statement that appeals to the narrowest spectrum of voters (number five) is the one that talk radio hosts like Limbaugh encourage, even though numbers one through four would appeal to more voters and end in the relevant candidate taking the exact same real world policy stance (no cap-and-trade). By caring about the symbolism of issues far more than policy outcomes, the GOP is ensuring its eventual nominee will find it harder to win a general election. Wouldn't it be better to extract from Romney a promise that he won't favor a carbon tax either?


Image credit: Reuters

Drop-down image credit: IowaPolitics/Flickr

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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