Chris Christie
Mel Evans  /  AP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses the media Thursday in Trenton, N.J., as he announces that New Jersey will withdraw from a 10-state regional greenhouse gas reduction program by the end of the year, saying the program is ineffective at combating global warming.
By
updated 5/27/2011 8:36:29 AM ET 2011-05-27T12:36:29

For Republican presidential contenders who once supported combatting global warming, the race is heating up.

Faced with an activist right wing that questions the science linking pollution to changes in the Earth's climate and also disdains big government, most of the GOP contenders have stepped back from their previous positions on global warming. Some have apologized outright for past support of proposals to reduce heat-trapping pollution. And those who haven't fully recanted are under pressure to do so.

The latest sign of that pressure came Thursday when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he was pulling his state out of a regional agreement to reduce greenhouse gases, saying it won't work. While Christie, a rising GOP star, has said he won't run for his party's presidential nomination, some in the party continue to recruit him.

Story: The 2012 GOP presidential field
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"Republican presidential hopefuls can believe in man-made global warming as long as they never talk about it, and oppose all the so-called solutions," said Marc Morano, a former aide to Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, one of the most vocal climate skeptics in Congress.

Morano now runs a website called Climate Depot where he attacks anyone who buys into the scientific consensus on climate change. Enemy No. 1 for Morano these days is Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who in 2008 shared a couch with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a TV ad backed by climate change guru Al Gore.

In it Gingrich says, "We do agree that our country must take action on climate change."

Since that appearance, Gingrich, who once ran an environmental studies program at a Georgia college, has called for the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency. He's also spoken out against a Democratic bill that passed the House in 2009 that would have limited emissions of greenhouse gases and created a market for pollution permits to be bought and sold.

But that hasn't been enough to satisfy conservative critics. Gingrich, who in 2007 told The New York Times that it was conceivable human beings were playing a role in global warming, went further in a recent interview when he said he doubted there was a connection between climate change and the burning of fossil fuels.

"The planet used to be dramatically warmer when we had dinosaurs and no people," Gingrich told The Macon (Ga.) Telegraph last week. "To the best of my knowledge the dinosaurs weren't driving cars."

Cap-and-trade
Where Gingrich has waffled, other GOP contenders have conceded on the issue of climate.

Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman potentially come into the race with even more climate baggage, since all three supported as governors regional "cap-and-trade" programs to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. All have since abandoned that stance.

"Everybody is instantly suspect about these guys," said Mike McKenna, a Republican strategist working with GOP leaders in Congress who want to prevent the EPA from taking steps to curb global warming. And it's not because the candidates once thought global warming was legitimate, McKenna says. "That just makes people question their judgment. It's that they all bought into a big government program. That makes people question their character."

It's a marked turnaround for a party that just three years ago nominated Republican Sen. John McCain, who long has supported cap and trade to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and who campaigned on the issue even though it put him on the same side as his opponent, Barack Obama.

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In fact, the whole idea of a market to trade pollution credits came from the Republican Party. It emerged in the late 1980s under the administration of President George H.W. Bush as a free-market solution to the power plant pollution that was causing acid rain. It passed Congress nearly unanimously in 1990 as a way to control emissions of sulfur dioxide.

But now it has become synonymous with partisanship and political risk. Legislation to use the pollution credits approach to curb global warming passed the Democratic-controlled House in 2009, with the support of Obama. It died in the Senate after Republicans labeled it a "cap-and-tax" plan that would raise energy prices and after House Democrats who voted for it were attacked at town hall meetings back home.

Many of those Democrats lost their seats in last November's elections and with the House now under Republican control, Obama has said he no longer would pursue it.

'Toxic political veneer'
The current field of Republican presidential hopefuls is working to shed what McCain's former environmental adviser calls the "toxic political veneer" of that policy.

The biggest reversal has come from Pawlenty, who a year after signing a law in Minnesota to cut greenhouse gas emissions was featured in a radio ad for the Environmental Defense Action Fund. Joined by then-Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, now a member of Obama's Cabinet, Pawlenty called on Congress to limit the pollution blamed for global warming. "If we act now," he said in the spot, "we can create thousands of new jobs in clean energy industries before our overseas competitors beat us to it."

Two years later, he wrote Congress opposing the Democratic bill, saying it was "overly bureaucratic, misguided and would be very burdensome on our economy." In a South Carolina debate earlier this month, he apologized altogether for his climate past, calling it a clunker in his record. "I don't duck it, bob it, weave it, try to explain it away," he said. "I'm just telling you, I made a mistake."

Huntsman doesn't go as far. Obama's former ambassador to China, the country that releases more greenhouse gas pollution than any other, tells Time magazine in an interview to be published this week that it's the timing that's off.

As governor of Utah, he appeared in a 2007 ad for an environmental advocacy group in which he said, "Now it's time for Congress to act by capping greenhouse gas pollution." He also signed an agreement with seven other Western states and four Canadian provinces to reduce greenhouse gases. Since then, other states have pulled their support.

"Much of this discussion happened before the bottom fell out of the economy, and until it comes back, this isn't the moment," he says now. When asked whether he believes the climate is changing, he acknowledges the scientific consensus.

"All I know is 90 percent of the scientists say climate change is occurring," he says. "If 90 percent of the oncological community said something was causing cancer, we'd listen to them."

Romney changed his mind less recently. As Massachusetts governor in 2005, he initially supported a regional pollution-reduction market, saying it would spur jobs and the economy. Weeks later, he refused to sign the pact when the other states would not agree to cap the price for pollution permits.

Palin's clean record
If anyone has a clean record on climate change in the potential GOP field, it's former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

Video: Palin set to launch bus tour

While Palin set up a sub-Cabinet office to map out the state's response to global warming as governor, and sought federal dollars to help coastal communities threatened by erosion, she has been steadfast in saying human beings are not responsible for climate change and that proposals to limit pollution threaten the economy.

Not all Republicans are happy with the trajectory the party is on when it comes to global warming. Former New York Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a 27-year veteran of Congress who was known a staunch protector of the environment, said he has "never been so disappointed all my life in the pretenders to the throne from my party."

"Not one of them is being forthright in dealing with climate science," he said in an interview. "They are either trying to finesse it, or change previous positions to accommodate the far right. They are denying something that is as plain as the nose on your face."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.

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