Forget climate-denying Republicans. Democrats face big divisions of their own about how to tackle global warming. And Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, one of a handful of vulnerable, moderate Democrats up for reelection in an energy-rich state, offers a glimpse into this split.
Begich, who ranks in the middle of the liberal-conservative spectrum in National Journal's 2013 vote ratings for the Senate released Thursday, acknowledges global warming is real. He regularly points out how Alaska is already being affected by it, but he says politicians should discuss climate change in the context of saving money and assessing risks, not carbon emissions.
"You have to broaden the perspective and look at what's the goal here," Begich said in an interview. "If the goal is to lower emissions, that's disconnected to most people. If the goal is to save taxpayers' money, now the public has some interest."
Begich and others in a similar spot like Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas were not among the 18 Democrats who unveiled a climate-change task force last month.
"The purpose is to use the bully pulpit of our Senate offices to achieve that wake-up call," Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer said at a briefing announcing the new initiative. "We believe that climate change is a catastrophe that is unfolding before our eyes, and we want Congress to take off the blindfolds."
On Thursday, House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman, who works with Boxer and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., on climate-change issues, announced that he and other House Democrats are going to highlight the risks of climate change in regular op-eds in The Huffington Post.
Their positions aren't aligned with that of Begich, who says cost should be a more paramount concern. "That's how we should be talking about this," he said. "If we're over here, and that's why I have a little rub with the task force, if you're just talking about emissions, we understand that because we talk in that language, but if you convert that to 'Your insurance rates are going up,' or 'That electricity bill could be lower,' then suddenly.…"
The task force launched by Boxer and Whitehouse is "trying to put this issue back on the table, which I think is a fair discussion," Begich said.
When asked why he didn't participate in the coalition's press conference, Begich responded: "Probably because they know where I would be, and I would not be 100 percent in the direction of how they're going about it."
He plans to show up at task force meetings, though, even if he's not a formal participant.
"I think it's important that they hear the broad perspective of how to deal with this from a state that's ground zero on this," said Begich, referring to his impromptu and unofficial participation in previous climate talks.
Conservative activist groups are hoping to use climate change—and moderate Democrats' presumed support for pricing carbon emissions—as a political tool against them this cycle.
Begich said acknowledging climate change is real and supporting action (albeit not a carbon tax or cap-and-trade) doesn't help or hurt him in his reelection bid. "With my base, they'll greatly appreciate it, and with moderates, they'll like it because they understand it," Begich said. "For people who are just anti-climate change, well, it is what it is."
While Democrats are split on what to do about climate change, Republicans are isolated almost to the point of being irrelevant. Many don't talk about the issue at all, and most of those who do refuse to acknowledge it is real and that burning of fossil fuels is a big factor. That's out of step with nearly 70 percent of Americans who say global warming is a real problem, according to a Pew Research poll last year.
Ben Geman contributed to this article.
This article appears in the February 7, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.