Jeb Bush is hard to pin down on climate change.
The former Florida governor, who has taken more moderate stances on controversial issues such as immigration and education than many of his Republican White House rivals, is attempting to thread the needle on climate change, energy, and the environment.
In recent months, Bush has suggested that the United States should adapt to climate change and work with other countries to cut carbon-dioxide emissions while also outlining a moral case for protecting the planet. The green group funded by liberal billionaire Tom Steyer even applauded Bush for saying he was "concerned" about the changing climate.
That set Bush apart from Republican presidential contenders such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who questions whether global temperatures are rising at all, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has thrown cold water on the idea that the United States can convince countries like China and India to rein in emissions.
But Bush is a far cry from being a climate champion. He does not acknowledge the scientific consensus that human activity drives climate change, and he attacks the Environmental Protection Agency, the agency enforcing President Obama's ambitious effort to tackle global warming.
Apart from suggesting that increased reliance on natural gas would lower American emissions, Bush has given little indication that he would put forward any overarching plan of his own to confront climate change.
"The climate is changing. I don't think the science is clear on what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural. It's convoluted," Bush said at an event in New Hampshire on Wednesday, according to The Washington Post.
Bush's record so far is evidence of an attempt to walk a fine line, strategists say.
"He's leaving some wiggle room," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist and former campaign adviser to John McCain. "I don't think Jeb Bush will stick his neck out too far heading into the primary. But he also won't want to have his hands tied one way or the other on climate change if he reaches the general."
The back-and-forth has left some environmentalists reeling—and now many say his words ring hollow.
On Thursday, Steyer's group walked back its earlier praise after Bush suggested that climate science is not settled. "It's disappointing to hear these comments from a candidate who just last month was set to lead a conversation in the Republican Party about solving climate change," NextGen Climate said in a statement.
"Let's be clear: Paying lip service to the potential, maybe existence of climate change while proudly declaring you're not a scientist is not the same as leading," said Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesperson for 350 Action. "Until Jeb Bush outlines his path to a future that limits global warming to 2 degrees, he's functionally no different from the snowball-throwers and flat-Earthers of his party."
Green-minded conservatives and some influential religious leaders take a different view.
Fans of the former Florida governor argue that Bush is articulating a distinct brand of conservative environmentalism that could change the political conversation around climate change—and pave the way for Republicans to offer up conservative solutions to the problem of rising emissions.
To make that case, they point to remarks the former Florida governor made during a speech at Liberty University addressed to a crowd of young evangelicals earlier this month where Bush appeared to frame conservation as a moral issue.
"America's environmental debates likewise can be too coldly economically, too sterile of life, and you remind us what's really at stake. Christians see in nature and all its creatures designs grander than any of man's own devising—the endless, glorious work of the Lord of Life," Bush said.
"Men and women of your generation are striving to be protectors of creation "¦ and that moral vision can make all the difference," he added.
"This is tremendously exciting," said Bob Inglis, the executive director of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative and a prominent conservative climate advocate. "That was a rare statement and certainly the first of the presidential race where someone who identifies as a political conservative is using moral terms to talk about the environment."
"I think what Bush was basically saying is there is common ground here for Republicans and Democrats," said Thomas Wenski, the archbishop of Miami who met with Bush multiple times when he served as Florida governor.
Bush's defenders are not disheartened that he has not voiced support for limits on greenhouse-gas emissions or explicitly stated that he would back an international climate agreement.
"You have to start somewhere," Alexei Laushkin, the vice president of the Evangelical Environmental Network said. "It's been awhile since you've had a conservative candidate in a position of authority to implement a solution. So it's hard to go immediately to that."
Speaking at the same New Hampshire event on Wednesday where he suggested that the science of global warming is not settled, Bush also said the United States should adapt to climate change and added that climate change should be "part of, a small part of, prioritization of our foreign policy."
But Bush is quick to offer clear caveats when voicing concern. At the same event, Bush suggested that Obama's efforts to tackle climate change will hurt the economy.
"The president's approach is, effectively, reduced economic activity to lower our carbon footprint," Bush said, according to CNN. "That's not what he says, of course, but that's the result of his policies."
Bush also never misses an opportunity to criticize the EPA. At the Iowa Agriculture Summit in March, he called the agency a "pig in slop," declaring, "We have to begin to rein in this top-down driven regulatory system." Earlier this month, the likely White House contender accused the agency of trying to regulate dust, a well-worn talking point that has been debunked.
Whatever Bush says, he is unlikely to win over most environmentalists, who are pinning their hopes instead on Hillary Clinton.
In contrast to Bush, the 2016 Democratic front-runner has voiced support for president Obama's efforts to rein in greenhouse gases.
And despite the fact that some environmentalists have concerns over Clinton's record as well—including her support for fracking and her silence on the Keystone XL pipeline—the White House climate agenda is a prize that green groups will do almost anything to defend.
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