Tim Pawlenty has been apologizing to anyone who will listen for his so-called flirtation with cap-and-trade climate policy, recently dismissing his efforts to “look at it” as misguided and slamming carbon limits as “burdensome on the economy.” The former Minnesota governor has even renounced his previous conviction about the validity of climate science and now asserts that the research is “faulty” and can’t be trusted.
“I looked at [cap-and-trade], like most of the other leading candidates did, some years ago—flirted with it, for sure,” he said in an interview last month on CNBC. “But I’ve just admitted my mistake and said I was wrong.… It would be harmful to the economy. It’s based on flawed science, and we should throw it out the window.”
Pawlenty’s public squirming over climate change—an issue on which he was once viewed as an emerging national leader—highlights the deeply uncomfortable dance that top GOP contenders will have to execute as they seek to reconcile their past records, their current positions, and their party’s increasingly rigid dogma.
Supporters of action against climate change have always been a small minority among Republicans. But they weren’t always considered heretics. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, was an unabashed believer in the reality of climate change and a coauthor in 2003, with Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, of the first Senate cap-and-trade bill.
This year, many of the GOP contenders are grappling with past deviations from party doctrine. Newt Gingrich once made an ad with Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader whom Republicans like to demonize as a liberal Cruella De Vil, pledging to address climate change. Jon Huntsman, as governor of Utah, was the chief promoter of the Western Climate Initiative, a plan under which Utah would have joined California and other states in a regional cap-and-trade system. Mitt Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, worked on a similar plan for Northeastern states, though he ultimately refused to sign on.
Today, all of the GOP candidates vow to fight anything that even hints of restrictions on fossil fuels and carbon emissions. Gingrich, who explicitly supported cap-and-trade policies in 2007, now ridicules similar Democratic proposals as “cap-and-tax.” Huntsman and Romney say they still believe in global warming but insist that this is not the time for new emissions rules.
No other candidate, however, has made a more jaw-dropping about-face than Pawlenty. Despite his current claims, Pawlenty did far more than flirt with climate change: He made the issue a signature of his administration and of his 2007-08 tenure as head of the National Governors Association. He aggressively led state, regional, and national efforts to promote cap-and-trade legislation and pushed through one of the country’s toughest renewable-energy mandates in Minnesota. Along the way, he won other Republicans over to the cause. And he did it in the national spotlight, as his star rose high enough to put him on McCain’s short list of possible running mates.
Pawlenty’s clean-energy and climate push began in earnest at the end of 2006, after he narrowly won a bruising reelection race against Democrat Mike Hatch.
Although Pawlenty’s first term had been defined by fiscal and social conservatism, he campaigned as a moderate, and he wanted to create a more centrist profile in his second term. As a practical matter, he also had to move his ideas through the Democratic-controlled Legislature in St. Paul. A clean-energy push fit the bill perfectly: Minnesota’s windswept prairies had the potential to generate vast supplies of low-carbon electricity, along with jobs in manufacturing and installing wind turbines. Plus, the governor had bipartisan support for some form of renewable-energy legislation.
Pawlenty also had a personal motivation. As an evangelical Christian, he had been brought to believe in the urgency of climate change by his pastor, Leith Anderson, who earlier in 2006 had banded with a group of other evangelical leaders to challenge the Bush administration on global warming. In a letter to the president, they argued that there was no longer a legitimate scientific debate on the merits of climate science and that evangelicals had a moral obligation to solve a problem that threatened the world’s most vulnerable inhabitants. (Anderson is now president of the National Association of Evangelicals.)
In December 2006, Pawlenty rolled out his sweeping and ambitious Next Generation Energy Initiative, which called on Minnesotans to enact the strongest renewable-energy law in the country. The plan would require the state’s utilities to generate 25 percent of their electricity from sources such as wind and solar by 2025. It also called for slashing statewide fossil-fuel consumption 15 percent by 2015 and enrolling Minnesota in a regional cap-and-trade program.