Earlier this month, Mitt Romney professed a belief in anthropogenic global warming at a townhall event. His comments have earned him criticism from the right, including from Rush Limbaugh (“Bye-bye, nomination”).
The first note about this development is that Romney’s belief in global warming is not new. In fact, as governor of Massachusetts, he helped negotiate and design the northeastern Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) cap-and-trade program (the same one that Chris Christie recently exited) before abruptly abandoning it. What is new is that he’s tipping his hand to show that he won’t cater to the right wing base on this issue in the election, and also the fact, as Limbaugh suggests, the conservative base has changed its perspective on the issue following Climategate.
The question is whether Romney’s embrace of global warming orthodoxy will be yet another major obstacle for him in the hunt for the GOP nomination. And the answer hinges on whether his belief in global warming necessarily implies that he’ll support programs like cap-and-trade or carbon taxes, which the GOP base adamantly opposes.
Romney’s campaign hasn’t elaborated on that point yet. He only hinted at it at the townhall event: “It’s important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may be significant contributors.”
There are few options for the government to reduce emissions other than levying a carbon tax of some kind or imposing efficiency mandates, both of which are unpopular among primary voters, to say the least.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Romney is all for cap-and-trade.With what he’s said up to this point, Romney has put himself in the same category as Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty, and Chris Christie, all of whom have expressed concern about emissions at one point or another, but none of whom support carbon taxation or cap-and-trade in the near term.
Christie presents a useful point of comparison with Romney. As the governor of a northeastern state, Christie would play into a predetermined narrative about Republicans (that they’re anti-science) by rejecting the premise that carbon emissions generate temperature increases, and that would cost him in the polls. In announcing that he was withdrawing New Jersey from RGGI, Christie attached a forceful statement of belief in the phenomenon of global warming to a convincing case that the cap-and-trade program was simply uneconomical and ineffective. In doing so, he headed off the worst of the familiar criticisms from the left, while reassuring national conservatives that he didn’t pose a threat on the issue.
Christie’s approach toward emissions and global warming might be a model for blue-state Republicans who have to reach some kind of a compromise, at least in terms of epistemology, with their more liberal voters. Although many on the right would argue that lending credence to global warming fears plays into the hands of cap-and-trade advocates and the like, that stance isn’t a political risk if the politician in question can simply demonstrate that the usual programs suggested to reduce emissions cost far too much relative to the emissions reductions they bring about.
Romney is no longer a blue-state governor, but that was the background against which he formed a lot of his platform and campaigning style. Perhaps he is going to come out in favor of some kind of carbon taxation (we may know more about that after tonight’s debate), but he could also follow in the path that Christie has set.
If so, Romney would benefit in two ways. First, he would be able to assuage conservatives’ fears about his environmental leanings in the primary by condemning cap-and-trade and other costly green schemes. And he would set himself up as a “reasonable” candidate in the general election, should he get there. Second, he would be right on the merits: almost any bill that would effectively tax carbon (i.e., thereby reducing emissions) in the next presidential term would be too expensive, given the state of the economy.