WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. fight against climate change isn’t just for Democrats any more.
Democrats used to own the environmental issue, grabbing votes from party loyalists and independent voters when they stressed their plans to curb global warming.
This could be the year Republicans, the party of President George W. Bush, use climate change as a rallying cry at election time.
It could also differentiate Republican presidential contenders from Bush administration policies that have left the United States isolated among the world’s biggest developed countries.
Climate change can draw support from outside the party ranks, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said. Republicans could use the help after losing control of both houses of Congress in 2006.
“Republicans lost in 2006 because independents abandoned our party,” Mehlman said at a political discussion several weeks before the February 5 “Super Tuesday” vote.
“How do we earn the confidence back of independents? This (climate change) is an issue on which not only you can do it, but it’s an issue on which you can do it consistent with conservative values,” Mehlman said.
Economic conservatives, traditionally Republicans, view technological solutions as a way to create wealth and jobs. Some corporate leaders have backed a federal limit on carbon emissions to prevent a patchwork of state laws.
Religious conservatives, often aligned with the Republicans, embrace cutting carbon emissions as an aspect of human stewardship of divine creation.
National security conservatives argue that reducing dependence on foreign oil would cut off funding for anti-U.S. elements in the Middle East and elsewhere.
This stance is at odds with the current administration, which is alone among major industrialized countries in opposing the carbon-capping Kyoto Protocol.
Bush has said the Kyoto plan, which expires in 2012, would put the United States at a disadvantage if fast-growing developing countries like China and India were exempt from its requirements.
Republican Sen. John Warner has taken the lead on Capitol Hill, co-sponsoring a bill to cap the carbon dioxide emissions that spur climate change. Arizona Sen. John McCain, front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, sponsored an earlier climate change bill.
Former Republican Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister now running for president, has been light on specifics to combat climate change but has said that whatever is causing it, humans must act to clean it up.
By contrast, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won last month’s Republican primary in Michigan -- where his father served as governor and where the Big Three automakers are based -- after taking aim at McCain’s support for increased fuel efficiency, saying this would hurt the U.S. auto industry.
In California, the biggest prize of “Super Tuesday,” Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has headed a campaign to set tougher-than-federal emissions standards for cars, light trucks and sport utility vehicles, and that plan has been taken up by 16 other states.
To do this, the states need a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency, which has yet to be granted. McCain, Huckabee and Romney said at a candidates’ debate they supported the waiver, though Romney later modified his answer.
In the presidential race, where “change” has become a mantra for candidates in both major parties, Democrats Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois have strongly supported cap-and-trade plans to limit emissions of climate-warming carbon.
“The clear bipartisan support for capping global warming pollution should be a wake-up call for Congress,” said Tony Kreindler of the non-partisan group Environmental Defense.
Polls generally show voters rank climate change below the top tier issues, such as the economy and the war in Iraq, a finding disputed by David Sandretti of the League of Conservation Voters.
“Pollsters put the environment in this little box and pretend that it doesn’t bleed over into other issues,” Sandretti said in a telephone interview. He noted, as Mehlman did, that climate change is tied to national security, and added that it was also linked to the U.S. energy future.
“You can’t address global warming without dealing with the energy issue, and the energy issue pervades all aspects of America’s political life,” Sandretti said.
Editing by Howard Goller