Rand Paul’s Risky Bet on Climate Change

The senator from Kentucky is quietly staking out a position on the controversial issue. Will he regret it?

Rand Paul speaks to the press outside the White House, January 9, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Clare Foran
Add to Briefcase
Clare Foran
Feb. 12, 2015, 3 p.m.

Rand Paul is mak­ing a cli­mate-change cal­cu­la­tion that could cost him.

The sen­at­or from Ken­tucky and would-be 2016 con­tender has bucked the GOP es­tab­lish­ment on an ar­ray of is­sues ran­ging from na­tion­al se­cur­ity to drug policy. And in re­cent months, Paul has star­ted to build a re­cord sug­gest­ing that he sup­ports ac­tion to cut air pol­lu­tion and be­lieves that man-made green­house-gas emis­sions are con­trib­ut­ing to cli­mate change.

That stance sets Paul apart from many Re­pub­lic­an 2016 hope­fuls who have pub­licly cast doubt on hu­man­kind’s im­pact on cli­mate change and duck the ques­tion of wheth­er the U.S. should curb emis­sions.

It’s also a stra­tegic move. Call­ing for cli­mate ac­tion could help Paul win cred­ib­il­ity with young voters and in­de­pend­ents and ward off cri­ti­cism from the left that Re­pub­lic­ans stick their heads in the sand when it comes time to talk about a warm­ing plan­et.

But af­firm­ing that hu­man activ­ity bears some re­spons­ib­il­ity for cli­mate change and call­ing for pol­lu­tion cuts could erode sup­port for the sen­at­or in coal-rich Ken­tucky, where his Sen­ate term ends in 2016. It also leaves Paul vul­ner­able to at­tack from a crowded GOP pres­id­en­tial field.

“Try­ing to stake out a middle ground on this is­sue is like try­ing to thread a needle. It’s not go­ing to do him any fa­vors in the Re­pub­lic­an primary, and it could put a tar­get on his back,” said Ron Bon­jean, a vet­er­an GOP strategist.

Make no mis­take, Paul is not a cli­mate con­vert. He has ques­tioned the valid­ity of cli­mate sci­ence and left plenty of rhet­or­ic­al room to op­pose en­vir­on­ment­al policy. Paul also has called the pil­lar of Obama’s second term cli­mate agenda — reg­u­la­tions to rein in car­bon emis­sions from power plants — an “as­sault to our eco­nomy” and vowed to roll back the reg­u­la­tion.

But in re­cent months, Paul has in­dic­ated that hu­man activ­ity is con­trib­ut­ing to cli­mate change and sug­ges­ted sup­port for cut­ting emis­sions.

The sen­at­or voted “yes” on an amend­ment last month af­firm­ing that cli­mate change is real and that hu­man activ­ity con­trib­utes to it, while Marco Ru­bio and Ted Cruz voted “no.”

Paul also sees an up­side to en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tion in some cases. “I’m not against reg­u­la­tion. I think the en­vir­on­ment has been cleaned up dra­mat­ic­ally through reg­u­la­tions on emis­sions as well as clean wa­ter over the last 40 or 50 years, but I don’t want to shut down all forms of en­ergy such that thou­sands and thou­sands of people lose their jobs,” Paul said dur­ing a Novem­ber in­ter­view on HBO with Bill Ma­h­er.

That could give the Ken­tucki­an an edge over com­pet­it­ors like Cruz and Ru­bio who have not said that hu­man activ­ity has caused the cli­mate to change or called for ac­tion to curb pol­lu­tion when it comes time to woo young­er voters and in­de­pend­ents.

Sixty-six per­cent of in­de­pend­ent voters prefer a can­did­ate call­ing for ac­tion to tackle hu­man-made glob­al warm­ing as op­posed to someone who sidesteps the is­sue en­tirely or calls cli­mate change a hoax, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey re­leased last month by The New York Times, Stan­ford Uni­versity, and Re­sources for the Fu­ture, a non­par­tis­an think tank. And Pew re­ports that 57 per­cent of mil­len­ni­als say stricter en­vir­on­ment­al laws and reg­u­la­tions would be worth the cost.

But a strong stance in fa­vor of cli­mate ac­tion ranks no­tori­ously low on the list of voter pri­or­it­ies and may not play well dur­ing the primar­ies where the me­di­an age of voters skews high­er.

And Paul’s com­ments on en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tion are ex­actly the kind of sound bite that rival Re­pub­lic­ans could use to at­tack the him sen­at­or dur­ing the primary.

“This is a packed field, so we’re go­ing to see people us­ing any­thing they can to dis­cred­it each oth­er. I could see Cruz, Ru­bio, and oth­ers play­ing Whac-a-Mole with this,” said Ford O’Con­nell, a Re­pub­lic­an strategist and former cam­paign ad­viser to John Mc­Cain. “There’s very little up­side to stick­ing your neck out so soon on this.”

Paul won’t be the only Re­pub­lic­an vul­ner­able to at­tacks from the right on his cli­mate re­cord. Lind­sey Gra­ham, Bobby Jin­dal, and Chris Christie have all said that hu­man activ­ity con­trib­utes to cli­mate change and sup­port ac­tion to stem the tide of rising emis­sions.

The stance that Paul, Gra­ham, Jin­dal, and Christie are stak­ing out could serve as an early test of how closely Re­pub­lic­ans are will­ing to ap­proach agree­ment with the sci­entif­ic con­sensus on cli­mate change.

Des­pite the fact that the vast ma­jor­ity of sci­ent­ists agree that cli­mate change is real and that hu­mans con­trib­ute to it, a fierce de­bate over cli­mate change con­tin­ues to rage with­in the Re­pub­lic­an Party. (See Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s guide to where likely GOP 2016 con­tenders stand on the is­sue here.)

In con­trast to Paul, many front-run­ners for the GOP 2016 nom­in­a­tion have thrown cold wa­ter on the idea that any­thing should be done to cut pol­lu­tion.

“I don’t agree with the no­tion that some are put­ting out there, in­clud­ing sci­ent­ists, that some­how, there are ac­tions we can take today that would ac­tu­ally have an im­pact on what’s hap­pen­ing in our cli­mate,” Ru­bio said dur­ing an in­ter­view with ABC last year.

“The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has no busi­ness at­tempt­ing to massively re­order the glob­al eco­nomy res­ult­ing in policies that kill jobs and keep people from rising out of poverty, all in the name of a the­ory that can’t be proven or dis­proven,” Cruz told Na­tion­al Journ­al last week.

To be sure, Paul has not set out any plan of his own for how to cut back emis­sions. But the sen­at­or has made clear that he thinks ac­tion should be taken to do so.

“I’m against pol­lu­tion and think we should min­im­ize pol­lu­tion, wheth­er or not the mod­els are cor­rect,” Paul said dur­ing an in­ter­view last year with former Obama ad­viser Dav­id Axel­rod.

That has giv­en some green-minded Re­pub­lic­ans hope.

“We need to be hav­ing a na­tion­al con­ver­sa­tion that Re­pub­lic­ans are a part of on cli­mate change and how we can deal with it. So it’s in­cred­ibly en­cour­aging to see Rand Paul talk­ing about this,” said Rob Sis­son, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Con­ser­vAmer­ica, a con­ser­vat­ive en­vir­on­ment­al group.

But don’t ex­pect en­vir­on­ment­al­ists to line up in sup­port of the sen­at­or from Ken­tucky any­time soon.

“I’m not wait­ing around for Rand Paul,” Ju­li­an Boggs, the glob­al-warm­ing pro­gram dir­ect­or for En­vir­on­ment Amer­ica, a fed­er­a­tion of state-based en­vir­on­ment­al ad­vocacy or­gan­iz­a­tions, said. “There’s a big gap between what people say and what they do, and if he wants to do something on this is­sue, that’s great, we wel­come that, but we haven’t seen that yet.”

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