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
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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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