Retired Republicans Push GOP to Confront Climate Change

While tea partiers maintain global warming isn't a problem, an environmental schism is widening within the party

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To hear GOP presidential front-runner Rick Perry and some tea party-backed lawmakers tell it, the Republican position on global warming is that it's a problem that doesn't even exist.

That wasn't always the case. And if prominent Republican elder statesmen have their way, it won't continue to be.

Between 2005 and 2010, prominent moderate Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and John Warner of Virginia (now retired) were among Washington's leading voices in the call to fight climate change, and authored cap-and-trade bills aimed at addressing the problem.

And they did so as leaders of their party: while running for president, chairing Senate committees, and working within the congressional leadership.

Now, moderate Republicans like McCain and Graham have quieted their voices on the issue, in part because acknowledging climate change puts them out of sync with the tea party base that has so energized their party, and because climate-change legislation stands no chance of passing Congress in the current political environment.

But quietly, many acknowledge a deepening GOP schism over the issue, as many moderates grow increasingly disturbed by their party's denial of proven science. A number of influential Republicans who have left the battlefield of electoral politics are now taking action in an effort to change the GOP's stance.

Conservative economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a senior advisor on McCain's 2008 presidential campaign who now heads the center-right think tank American Action Forum, is working with the New Hampshire-based climate policy advocacy group Clean Air-Cool Planet. The group has flown Holtz-Eakin to the state several times over the last few months to hold small living-room meetings to talk to voters about the economic concerns raised by climate change--and the economic benefits of addressing the problem.

Holtz-Eakin said he's not trying to evangelize about climate science, but is presenting the case for policies that could address the problem in a way that benefits the economy. One proposal that has long been embraced by conservative economists, for example, is a tax swap--imposing a tax on carbon emissions, while eliminating the payroll tax.

Environmentalists believe that the underlying message of such talks could resonate powerfully in New Hampshire, a key presidential primary state.

"Our objective is to make sure that when candidates come to New Hampshire it's not adequate to come dismiss the science and write this off," said Brooks Yeager, executive vice president of policy for Clean Air-Cool Planet, referring specifically to Texas Gov. Perry's public rejections of climate science.

"We have watched with foreboding as powerful forces in the Republican Party want to close down this debate and reject the idea that this is a problem that needs to be solved," Yeager said. "Our interest in working with someone like Douglas, who has enormous credibility in conservative ranks and economists and agrees with our fundamental position that this is a problem that needs to be solved, is that he is exceptionally well positioned to reopen this debate."

Respected elder statesmen of the GOP also are using their clout to send a message on climate. John Warner, the former Virginia senator who now lobbies with the firm Hogan Lovells, is also a senior adviser to the Pew Project on National Security, Energy, and Climate Change, which focuses on the need to develop alternative energy to combat climate change and lessen dependence on foreign oil.

Warner, who in 2007 cosponsored a sweeping climate-change bill with then-Democrat and now independent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, recalled proudly that his cap-and-trade bill got further in the Senate than any climate legislation before or since.

"Factually, that is the only comprehensive clean-energy bill that got to the Senate floor, and nothing's happened since," Warner said.

Warner, a former Navy secretary, now travels the country for the Pew project, making speeches and appearances at military bases, and calling attention to the national-security concerns of climate change and fossil-fuel dependence.

Working with Warner on the Pew climate-change project is George Shultz, President Reagan's secretary of State, who helped advise George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign and who remains an influential Republican voice. Last year, Shultz, who now serves as a distinguished fellow at Stanford University, cochaired the "No on Prop. 23" campaign in California, which successfully defended California's pioneering climate-change cap-and-trade law against an oil-industry-led effort to overturn it.

"My own opinion is that this problem is very real," Shultz told National Journal. "I recognize there's a lot of people pooh-poohing it. Whether they like the science or not, there's a huge problem coming at us. There's a huge melt coming in the Arctic regions. There's melting taking place." Of Republicans like Perry who deny climate science, he said, "They're entitled to their opinion, but they're not entitled to the facts."

When two major oil companies, Tesoro and Valero, bankrolled last year's campaign to overturn California's cap-and-trade law, Shultz said his response was, "We're not just going to beat these guys, we're going to beat the hell out of them. We conducted a vigorous campaign. It was a lot of fun."

A pair of former Republican congressmen also are getting into the act.

Retired New York Republican Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a former chairman of the House Science Committee, now works with the Accord Group and lobbies his former colleagues in an effort to keep them from passing laws that would gut the Environmental Protection Agency.

Former South Carolina GOP Rep. Bob Inglis, who lost his primary race last year in part because of his acknowledgment of the problem of climate change, is now giving speeches and lectures across the country about the need for conservatives to acknowledge the problem of climate change and work on solutions. He warns that the Republican Party will be branded "anti-science" if it doesn't. He is bringing his message to conservative strongholds such as Federalist clubs and conferences of the Conservative Political Action Conference.

"There are conservative voices that will hopefully show the way back to conservatism and away from a populist rejection of science," Inglis told National Journal.

A leading GOP strategist who advises congressional leadership on energy issues was dismissive of the former officeholders' efforts.

"If you're Bob Inglis and really believe that, the way that we work these things out is that you run for office," said Republican strategist Mike McKenna. "These retired guys, they say they think this, that, and the other. But if you really want to change it, you have to be on the inside. If you care about this stuff, you run for office. They have been unable to convince anybody that they're right. The working party thinks one thing; these retirees think another. If you want to make a difference, get off the porch and work with the rest of us."

But Paul Bledsoe, a senior advisor with the Bipartisan Policy Center, an influential think tank that works with many prominent retired former lawmakers and advises Congress on everything from energy to healthcare, disagreed, pointing out that Shultz's involvement in the California climate campaign helped lead to its victory.

"They have a significant impact. They are voices of experience and thought leaders, which is a uniquely powerful combination. There is schism in the GOP on this issue. The recent concern over the Republican Party being labeled 'anti-science' has brought it to a head," Bledsoe said. "Wise figures within the party realize that this has come about partly because of their inability to develop an effective policy approach to the issue. That is what the graybeards of a party do. They recognize a structural and philosophical problem in their party and try to work it through."

Image credit: Richard A. Bloom/National Journal