The Sciences

Romney Plays to His Denialist Base: “I Don’t Think Carbon Is a Pollutant”

The IntersectionBy The IntersectionJul 22, 2011 2:39 AM

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by Jon Winsor Last month we praised Mitt Romney for taking a brave stand, if not a full-throated one, supporting the overwhelming weight of climate science. He was immediately pounced on by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santorum--while standing alone from the other GOP presidential contenders in talking seriously what scientists have said in unambigiously large numbers. Meanwhile, the unapologetic Tea Party candidate Michele Bachmann has taken the lead in Iowa by 13 points. To be fair, Romney has decided not to compete in Iowa. But Bachmann has made a name for herself by proposing things like abolishing the EPA, and no doubt Romney has taken notice. In a recent town hall meeting in Derry, New Hampshire, Romney took his own swipe at the EPA: The key statement: “I don’t think carbon is a pollutant in the sense of harming our bodies.” My favorite comeback to the “not a pollutant” argument is from Steven Chu: “water is generally very good, water in great deluges is not good.” It doesn’t matter what you call it. The question is what effect it has. And as Romney’s own Massachusetts DEP concluded, there are profound health consequences to climate change. What Romney may be considering, though, is the term “pollutant” in the legalese of the Clean Air Act, and he may sincerely think that the EPA shouldn’t enforce this law in such a broad way. The conservative American Spectator, though, remains unimpressed:

The Romney campaign contends there is an "important distinction" between pollutants and greenhouse gases, in the context of global warming and regulation of the invisible gases… but what's the difference? He believes they should be limited just like real pollutants, so whether or not he calls them that is irrelevant.

I tend to agree with this (although I don't agree with much else in the American Spectator). For Romney, the EPA may be the wrong regulatory vehicle, but that doesn’t mean he’s against regulating carbon. But here's the big problem: It’s almost impossible to tell what Romney thinks. Does he actually want a serious effort to curb carbon emissions, or is carbon for him not a “pollutant,” and has no potential to “harm our bodies”? I doubt we'll learn any time soon. It’s interesting to contrast Romney with his counterpart Republican governor in that other blue, high tech state on the other coast, California. Romney hedges very carefully in this 2004 Massachusetts Climate Protection Plan (slow Internet Archive PDF download here) even when his statement appears in front of pages and pages of informative discussion and plans for action. By contrast, his west coast counterpart Arnold Schwarzenegger never hedged. Why are these two politicians so different? Romney is by nature an incredibly cautious politician (Rick Perlstein conjectures why here). And Schwarzenegger can't be president (he wasn't born in the US, so he's ineligible), so Schwarzenegger never had a reason to be cautious, and never had to worry about the national Republican base. Romney on the other hand had his eye on national office early on, and needs that base's motivated support in the primaries and beyond (and can't afford to lose that support to Michele Bachmann). For this reason, Romney's squirming and awkward posturing is not surprising coming from the governor who initiated the 2004 Massachusetts Climate Protection Plan... Update: According to ThinkProgress, Romney's administration in Massachusetts had no problem frequently referring to carbon dioxide as a "pollutant."

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