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Is climate change next for GOP?

By STEPHANIE YANG, MEDILL NEWS SERVICE, Written for UPI   |   Feb. 13, 2013 at 6:12 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's plan to rebrand the Republican Party neglected to address a priority for the Obama administration as well as many Americans -- climate change.

After a dip in 2009, public acceptance of climate change as reality is growing. The Pew Research Center said the percentage of Americans who say they believe in global warming increased from 57 percent in 2009 to 67 percent last year. More of them also say it is caused by human activity -- up from 36 percent in 2009 to 42 percent in 2012.

Republicans seem to be trailing Democrats in addressing the issue. But some in the GOP are pushing for market-based solutions, drawn from Republican principles.

Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee say the GOP-led House voted against environmental protection 317 times during the 112th Congress. The votes covered a range of issues defined by Democrats as environmental protection -- from blocking anti-pollution measures to advocating for off-shore drilling.

At an Energy and Commerce hearing last week, Democrats urged the panel to spend more time considering the science of climate changes during deliberations in the 113th Congress.

At the meeting, U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., said he didn't see the necessity of changing the committee's game plan for oversight in 2013. In the previous Congress, he said, the committee heard from more than 30 climate change witnesses.

"I feel quite confident that at every hearing we have this year, we will have witnesses on climate change," Whitfield said.

Two attempts last week to force the committee to schedule hearings on climate change scientific findings failed.

"I am disappointed that the primary energy committee has come to this point of denying the science," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said in a statement Wednesday. "House Republicans have buried their heads in the sand."

Cheyenne Steel, Republican press secretary from the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said via email that Sen. David Vitter, R-La., as well as other Republican committee members, is focused on more "answers on the science behind EPA's new air standards regulations and how they will impact states and localities and economic recovery."

Steel cited two bills Vitter recently introduced: one against carbon tax and one against regulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions unless implemented by China, India and Russia.

ConservAmerica President Rob Sisson said most Republican officials understand the science of climate change but are stuck politically "between a rock and a hard place." If they speak out on the issue, more conservative or libertarian party members will criticize them, he said.

Sisson, who leads the conservative grassroots organization that describes itself as Republicans who "share a deep concern for the environment," said in the last Congress, members aligned with Tea Party interests often voted against environmental issues, healthcare reform and abortion rights as part of a political strategy.

However, the strategy to discredit Democrats and President Barack Obama backfired in November, he said.

"The party needs to go back to our platform from 2008, which acknowledged climate change and exercised conservative values to try to address it," Sisson said.

In the 2012 election, Sisson said the GOP's platform strayed from its "once-great conservation tradition." He said the changing environmental dialogue requires Republicans in Congress to change their political strategy.

"We have to actually offer concrete solutions that make people's lives better," Sisson said. "If we don't do that, we'll be part of that minority in Congress."

Republic National Committee spokesman Ryan Mahoney, said while the RNC doesn't set policy, the organization is "focused on a full RNC review looking at mechanics and how we reach more voters."

Much of the GOP's rebranding is focused on immigration reform to appeal to the Latino electorate but Sierra Club Legislative Director Melinda Pierce said Latinos also strongly support clean energy initiatives.

A Sierra Club and National Council of La Raza survey released in August indicated 77 percent of Latino voters say they global warming is already under way and another 15 percent said it will occur in the future.

"It's quite possible that after this big ticket item of immigration is addressed, [the GOP] will realize they have to go through the whole broad range of issues that are of concern to Latinos," Pierce said.

The Pew Research Center study said belief in climate change is more prevalent among liberals and young voters. Pierce said Obama's position on dealing with climate change attracted young voters in 2008 and they will be pushing for action in his second term.

Obama mentioned climate change as one of his priorities for his second term in his inaugural speech.

"Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms," Obama said at his inauguration last month.

Pierce said voters' tolerance for people who don't believe in climate change is wearing thin.

Sisson said by 2016, voters under 30 won't seriously consider candidates who deny evidence of global warming.

"The younger generation is actually lobbying their parents and grandparents on environmental issues," Sisson said. "That will only exasperate the problem that Republicans will be facing electorally."

Alex Bozmoski, director of strategy and operations at the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, said the growing discussion on climate change presents an opportunity for conservatives to lead with their own solution. The E&EI launched in July at George Mason University in Northern Virginia. It is led by former Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., to promote conservative solutions to climate change.

Bozmoski said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., married conservative principles with the reality of America's changing circumstances in his recent take on immigration reform. There is a similar path in the future for conservatives on climate change, he said.

"No one expects a hard flip on any orthodoxy in the [Republican] Party currently," Bozmoski said, "but orthodoxy definitely changes over time."

Bozmoski said in past years, liberals have used environmental catastrophe as a pretense for pro-government programs, which Republicans combated by denying the problem.

"Eventually we're going to have to deal with this problem and I sure hope that it's conservative policy that's enacted," he said.

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