Rand Paul is making a climate-change calculation that could cost him.
The senator from Kentucky and would-be 2016 contender has bucked the GOP establishment on an array of issues ranging from national security to drug policy. And in recent months, Paul has started to build a record suggesting that he supports action to cut air pollution and believes that man-made greenhouse-gas emissions are contributing to climate change.
That stance sets Paul apart from many Republican 2016 hopefuls who have publicly cast doubt on humankind's impact on climate change and duck the question of whether the U.S. should curb emissions.
It's also a strategic move. Calling for climate action could help Paul win credibility with young voters and independents and ward off criticism from the left that Republicans stick their heads in the sand when it comes time to talk about a warming planet.
But affirming that human activity bears some responsibility for climate change and calling for pollution cuts could erode support for the senator in coal-rich Kentucky, where his Senate term ends in 2016. It also leaves Paul vulnerable to attack from a crowded GOP presidential field.
"Trying to stake out a middle ground on this issue is like trying to thread a needle. It's not going to do him any favors in the Republican primary, and it could put a target on his back," said Ron Bonjean, a veteran GOP strategist.
Make no mistake, Paul is not a climate convert. He has questioned the validity of climate science and left plenty of rhetorical room to oppose environmental policy. Paul also has called the pillar of Obama's second term climate agenda—regulations to rein in carbon emissions from power plants—an "assault to our economy" and vowed to roll back the regulation.
But in recent months, Paul has indicated that human activity is contributing to climate change and suggested support for cutting emissions.
The senator voted "yes" on an amendment last month affirming that climate change is real and that human activity contributes to it, while Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz voted "no."
Paul also sees an upside to environmental regulation in some cases. "I'm not against regulation. I think the environment has been cleaned up dramatically through regulations on emissions as well as clean water over the last 40 or 50 years, but I don't want to shut down all forms of energy such that thousands and thousands of people lose their jobs," Paul said during a November interview on HBO with Bill Maher.
That could give the Kentuckian an edge over competitors like Cruz and Rubio who have not said that human activity has caused the climate to change or called for action to curb pollution when it comes time to woo younger voters and independents.
Sixty-six percent of independent voters prefer a candidate calling for action to tackle human-made global warming as opposed to someone who sidesteps the issue entirely or calls climate change a hoax, according to a survey released last month by The New York Times, Stanford University, and Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan think tank. And Pew reports that 57 percent of millennials say stricter environmental laws and regulations would be worth the cost.
But a strong stance in favor of climate action ranks notoriously low on the list of voter priorities and may not play well during the primaries where the median age of voters skews higher.
And Paul's comments on environmental regulation are exactly the kind of sound bite that rival Republicans could use to attack the him senator during the primary.
"This is a packed field, so we're going to see people using anything they can to discredit each other. I could see Cruz, Rubio, and others playing Whac-a-Mole with this," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist and former campaign adviser to John McCain. "There's very little upside to sticking your neck out so soon on this."
Paul won't be the only Republican vulnerable to attacks from the right on his climate record. Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, and Chris Christie have all said that human activity contributes to climate change and support action to stem the tide of rising emissions.
The stance that Paul, Graham, Jindal, and Christie are staking out could serve as an early test of how closely Republicans are willing to approach agreement with the scientific consensus on climate change.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of scientists agree that climate change is real and that humans contribute to it, a fierce debate over climate change continues to rage within the Republican Party. (See National Journal's guide to where likely GOP 2016 contenders stand on the issue here.)
In contrast to Paul, many front-runners for the GOP 2016 nomination have thrown cold water on the idea that anything should be done to cut pollution.
"I don't agree with the notion that some are putting out there, including scientists, that somehow, there are actions we can take today that would actually have an impact on what's happening in our climate," Rubio said during an interview with ABC last year.
"The federal government has no business attempting to massively reorder the global economy resulting in policies that kill jobs and keep people from rising out of poverty, all in the name of a theory that can't be proven or disproven," Cruz told National Journal last week.
To be sure, Paul has not set out any plan of his own for how to cut back emissions. But the senator has made clear that he thinks action should be taken to do so.
"I'm against pollution and think we should minimize pollution, whether or not the models are correct," Paul said during an interview last year with former Obama adviser David Axelrod.
That has given some green-minded Republicans hope.
"We need to be having a national conversation that Republicans are a part of on climate change and how we can deal with it. So it's incredibly encouraging to see Rand Paul talking about this," said Rob Sisson, the executive director of ConservAmerica, a conservative environmental group.
But don't expect environmentalists to line up in support of the senator from Kentucky anytime soon.
"I'm not waiting around for Rand Paul," Julian Boggs, the global-warming program director for Environment America, a federation of state-based environmental advocacy organizations, said. "There's a big gap between what people say and what they do, and if he wants to do something on this issue, that's great, we welcome that, but we haven't seen that yet."