In Congress, Climate Consensus May Soon Change

Not two years ago, the overriding consensus in Congress had shifted demonstrably on the topic of global warming and what we should do about it.

Whereas climate change had once fallen squarely within the province of environmentalism, Democratic and Republican politicans alike had begun to change their tunes on the whole in the early 2000s, and in 2003 a bipartisan cap-and-trade plan was put forth by Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman.

McCain eventually came to oppose the bill in 2008, while still supporting the idea of cap-and-trade, and the notion of capping emissions did not seem too far fetched in 2008. The presidential nominees of both major parties bought into the idea of global warming, and, while not everyone in the GOP felt the same way he did, it a broad consensus had seemed to coalesce around the notion that the planet is getting warmer and human beings are responsible.

"I will make global warming a priority," McCain said in January of 2008, still pushing for votes in the New Hampshire primary. When McCain won the nomination, it seemed that, despite resistance from some Republicans, differences on climate change were fading fast.

Flash forward to 2010, when consensus on global warming among politicians is under significant fire.

Republican House candidates across the country have run hard against cap-and-trade, some of them expressing doubts in anthropogenic global warming in the process. In conservative House districts represented by Democrats, energy policy has become one of the most prominent weapons wielded by Republicans, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi won enough votes from her caucus to barely pass a cap-and-trade climate bill--a bill the Senate never took up. Republican candidates have used this vote against vulnerable Democrats from Pennsylvania to Missouri, honing in on the idea that Congress has no business instituting taxes or caps on energy.

In Senate races, at least eight Republican candidates who have a shot at winning close races have either said that climate change doesn't exist or downplayed the need to confront it with legislation.

These opinions range widely.

Nevada's Sharron Angle, for instance, has called global warming a "hoax" that's based on "unscientific hysteria" on her website. Florida's Marco Rubio has said that there is "evidence to dispute" global warming, though he says he's not qualified, as a non-scientist, to give a definitive answer on the topic.

Washington's Dino Rossi has noted that temperatures are cyclical, and his campaign has said he's not sure how much humans have to do with it (which is the same position he took in 2008 when running for governor, supporting a reduction in emissions). In Missouri, Roy Blunt has said the science is not adequate.

Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey, meanwhile, has simply suggested that Congress wait to confront global warming until the U.S. is richer and scientists understand it better.

Those candidates all have a solid chance of winning. Rubio has maintained a commanding lead over independent Charlie Crist Democratic Kendrick Meek; Toomey leads his Democratic opponent, Joe Sestak; Rossi is locked in a tight race with incumbent Sen. Patty Murray; Angle has held a very slim edge over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid; Blunt appears to be on his way to victory over Robin Carnahan.

It would certainly be wrong to call all of these GOP candidates climate "deniers." It's a lot more complicated than that. There's a large degree of "wait and see" agnosticism at play in how some of them approach the issue. As a non-scientist myself, it's a philosophical stance I can at least appreciate.

But it's safe to say that if 2010 is indeed a wave year for Republicans, both in the House and Senate, consensus on climate change will shift significantly in Congress--from a point where Democrats came up only a few Senate votes shy of passing cap-and-trade, to a point where significant climate legislation will have very dim prospects for years to come.