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Politics / Politics

Pawlenty: Running from His Past Moves on Environmental Policy

As a governor, Tim Pawlenty pushed through tough laws to reduce greenhouse gases and slow climate change. Then he ran for president.

Tim Pawlenty(Steve Pope/Getty Images)

photo of Coral Davenport
June 23, 2011

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.

The high-profile proposal was well received. “Governor Tim Pawlenty gave global warming a welcome new prominence in his energy initiative, which picks up this state’s pace on expanding energy conservation and developing renewable fuels,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune declared in an editorial.

Pawlenty went to work immediately to push the initiative through. The renewable-energy mandate already had strong backing among Minnesota’s Democrats, but the governor met with conservative Republicans and business groups to convince them that it was a good idea. The Legislature passed the measure, and Pawlenty signed it into law in February 2007. At the time, the aggressive 25 percent renewable-energy mandate was the strongest in the country. Pawlenty presented the initiative as a model for other governors, and several states passed similar legislation in the years that followed.

“He was a real leader on this,” said Ellen Anderson, who was the chief author of the renewable-energy mandate and now chairs the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. “He talked about it a lot to the chamber [of commerce] and conservative groups. That helped me pass my bill. We couldn’t have passed it without him.”

And Pawlenty kept going. In April 2007, he created the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group and charged it with developing a comprehensive plan to reduce the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions. He appointed 51 business and community leaders to the panel—including Leith Anderson, his pastor. And he invited the Washington-based Center for Climate Strategies, a consulting firm that had helped 10 other states develop climate policies, to work with the advisory group.

In May, Pawlenty signed the Next Generation Energy Act, requiring the state to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions 15 percent by 2015 and 80 percent by 2050. “The nation has been asleep at the switch, but here in Minnesota we are kick-starting the future,” he boasted.

To highlight the local effects of climate change, Pawlenty toured the state with a fellow Minnesotan, Arctic explorer and dogsledder Will Steger, calling attention to the retreat of Minnesota’s majestic boreal forests and the declining water level of the Great Lakes.

“He had a lot of courage to do that,” Steger said. “But he was convinced by the science. I believe that he saw global warming for what it was. He saw, morally, the implications of it. He got a lot of flak from Republicans in the state for working with me. I thought it was courageous on his side.”

That summer, Pawlenty took his campaign national when he assumed the helm of the National Governors Association. He unveiled his national leadership initiative, Securing a Clean Energy Future, which called on states to ramp up their use of renewable energy and cut carbon emissions.

“America is at a tipping point,” Pawlenty warned in his address accepting the one-year chairmanship of the NGA. “Our country is too dependent on imported sources of energy, and greenhouse-gas emissions continue to grow too quickly. Governors have a tremendous opportunity to lead the country toward a cleaner, more independent, more secure energy future.”

He named six governors to a task force that he cochaired with then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas to look at ways that states could support energy efficiency and low-emissions technology. Environmentalists praised the move, saying it could help get federal efforts—including a national cap-and-trade plan—off the ground.

Meanwhile, Pawlenty reached out to his fellow Midwestern governors to create a regional cap-and-trade program, similar to those being put together in New England and in the Western states. In November, Pawlenty and five other governors signed the Midwest Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord, pledging to establish ambitious regional targets for greenhouse-gas reduction and to create a multi-sector cap-and-trade system to help meet the targets.

“There’s no doubt he was a leader and initiator,” recalls former Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin, with whom Pawlenty worked most closely on the Midwest pact. “He’s a very smart person. He had very good thoughts on this. We never had any disagreement on this. All of us recognized the need to have a national cap-and-trade—but [that] in the absence of that we should have a Midwestern cap-and-trade.”

As the only Republican governor in the group, Pawlenty helped give the initiative some bipartisan heft. But climate change hadn’t yet become a polarizing issue on the state level. “In those years, it really wasn’t that partisan,” Doyle said. “We had an understanding that this was an important issue that needed to be addressed and that the Midwestern states could really benefit by getting out ahead and working to build a renewable-energy industry.”

In January 2008, Pawlenty’s Climate Change Advisory Group released its policy recommendations, which included joining a regional cap-and-trade program and adopting strict air-emissions standards that would likely have blocked new coal-fired power plants. Conservative and business groups, such as the Minnesota Free Market Institute, slammed the recommendations. But Pawlenty appeared to stick by his climate principles. He teamed with the Environmental Defense Fund—the advocacy group credited with most forcefully pushing cap-and-trade policies as the best solution for climate change—and recorded a radio ad with Democrat Janet Napolitano, then governor of Arizona, urging Congress to act.

“Come on Congress. Let’s get moving … cap greenhouse-gas pollution now,” Pawlenty urged in the spot.

He also unveiled another round of energy and climate initiatives, including a state Energy Security Office and a proposed Carbon Market Planning Authority to prepare the state to trade emissions credits.

“While it’s still too early to know exactly how the carbon-credit market will develop, it’s not too early to prepare for the emergence of markets,” Pawlenty said.

At the National Governors Association conference in February 2008, Pawlenty prodded his fellow state leaders to find consensus on ways to encourage renewable energy and cut carbon emissions. To spur the discussions, he invited Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, which was a member of the influential cap-and-trade advocacy group U.S. Climate Action Partnership.

But resistance to those ideas from within his own party was intensifying. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour likened the cap-and-trade proposals to a carbon tax and called them “stupid.”

As 2008 wore on, Pawlenty backed away from the recommendations of his state’s climate panel. Record-high gasoline prices dimmed support for a policy that Republican strategists easily succeeded in labeling a tax. He lost the vice presidential nomination to Sarah Palin and hosted a Republican convention in St. Paul that became most famous for its rallying cheers of “Drill, baby, drill.”

By 2009, it was clear that a rising conservative tide, which would ultimately turn into the tea party juggernaut, was now driving the Republican Party. Pawlenty became almost silent on clean-energy and climate issues—not to be heard from again until this year, when he went on the airwaves slamming the climate work he had once championed.

In January, Pawlenty denied on Fox News Sunday With Chris Wallace that he had even signed a bill to promote cap-and-trade policies.

“We never did sign a bill relating to cap-and-trade or putting that into Minnesota,” he told Wallace. That was false. The Next Generation Energy Act that Pawlenty signed in 2007 specifically required state agencies to recommend a “regulatory system that imposes a cap on the aggregate air-pollutant emissions … and allows for market-based trading” of emission allowances.

In the Republican presidential candidates’ first debate earlier this year, on Fox, Pawlenty abjectly apologized for his old positions. “I was wrong; it was a mistake, and I’m sorry,” he said. “Nobody’s perfect. We all, and everybody here and everybody else who’s going to be running for president … if you’ve been in an executive position, you’re going to have some battle scars. You’re going to have a few clunkers in your record. We all do.”

Some GOP strategists say that Pawlenty risks losing more by abandoning causes he appeared to believe in deeply than he would by sticking to his positions and alienating ultra-conservatives.

“He’s been involved enough in the issue to truly understand the realities of it,” said David Jenkins, vice president for government and political affairs for Republicans for Environmental Protection. “Being that deeply involved, you can’t come away without a deep understanding of the science.… He disowned his accomplishments to pander to one segment of the Republican Party.”

Republican strategist Mike McKenna, who advises GOP leaders on energy policy and strategy, put it more bluntly. “Guys like Pawlenty now look like what they are—opportunists without authentic beliefs,” he wrote in an e-mail to National Journal. “That is why the issue is so damaging. It is totemic.”

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