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.