By Darren Samuelsohn
Mitt Romney won't be doing any apology tours on climate change.
The early GOP presidential front-runner has broken with his party's conservative ranks to declare global warming a real threat to the planet that merits some sort of action to curb heat-trapping emissions.
But the former Massachusetts governor is also quick to trash cap and trade, carbon taxes and other controversial policies that have been kicked around over the last decade in Washington.
In a sense, Romney's initial global warming stance sounds a lot like that of former President George W. Bush, who during his two terms reluctantly accepted climate science while fighting Democrats and environmentalists over what to do about it.
"He realizes it's an issue. It's an issue that's real," said Jeff Holmstead, a former Bush EPA air pollution official and Romney supporter who doesn't have an official role in the campaign. "But I think he's not convinced that the ideas that the environmental community are putting forward is a sensible way of dealing with it."
Until now, Romney has had a relatively easy time in dealing with the politics of climate change, in no small part because conservatives have been busy pummeling his record in Massachusetts on health care.
And when global warming did come up, the right was preoccupied with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has repeatedly apologized over his past support for carbon caps and now calls it a "clunker" in his record, and Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who three years ago cut a TV commercial with Nancy Pelosi where they pledge to work together on the climate issue.
Romney's critics got their opening last Friday when he responded to a climate question during a town hall meeting in Manchester, N.H.
"I don't speak for the scientific community, of course, but I believe the world is getting warmer, and I believe that humans have contributed to that," Romney said. "I can't prove that, but I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer.
"No. 2, I believe that humans contribute to that," he continued. "I don't know how much our contribution is to that, because I know there's been periods of greater heat and warmth than in the past, but I believe we contribute to that. And so I think it's important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants, of greenhouse gases, that may well be significant contributors to the climate change and global warming that you're seeing."
By acknowledging global warming is occurring, Romney falls roughly into the same camp as Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who recently told Time magazine he's concerned about the issue but would no longer support his state's participation in a regional cap-and-trade program because of the rough economy.
In Massachusetts, Romney also took the opening steps toward joining a cap-and-trade compact for power plants now known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. As John McCain's campaign pointed out during their bitter 2008 GOP nomination battle, Romney had even called cap and trade "good for business."
But to the chagrin of greens, Romney pulled out of RGGI in late 2005 just before it got off the ground, citing a lack of economic safeguards. Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick brought the state back to RGGI in 2007.
Conservatives trying to digest Romney's evolving views on climate change are not very pleased with what they've heard over the years.
"All that does is tell me he's the wrong guy for the presidency, anyone who'd change his philosophy in accordance with where the votes are," Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of the leading climate skeptics in Congress, told POLITICO.
"Remind me again: Why is this guy considered the front-runner for the Republican nomination?" blogger Doug Brady wrote Friday on the site Conservatives4Palin after Romney's remarks in New Hampshire. "I may be going out on a limb here, but shouldn't the Republican candidate oppose Democrat positions? Or am I living in the past and hopelessly naïve?"
A complete Romney energy policy book is still a long way off. Campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul didn't address specific questions on issues like EPA regulations and state-based cap-and-trade programs.
But Saul pointed to seven different citations on the climate and energy issue in Romney's 2011 autobiography "No Apologies."
There, Romney almost word-for-word details the same view about climate science that he offered in New Hampshire. He also broaches a number of the hot-button climate policy issues. "I do not support radical feel-good politics like a unilateral U.S. cap-and-trade mandate," he wrote.
On oil and carbon taxes, Romney called them a "regressive form of taxation that would penalize those least able to shoulder the burden. It's a nonstarter."
Holmstead, an industry lawyer at Bracewell & Giuliani, said he doesn't expect Romney to break from the GOP orthodoxy on the climate policy front.
"I've not seen anything to suggest he wants to sign off on an aggressive carbon tax, or even an EPA regulatory approach," he said. "Just because you say it looks like human activity may well be having an impact on the climate, it doesn't mean we run off and do something that doesn't make any sense. And that's certainly the impression I have from listening to him."
Romney's views on climate change -- accepting the science but casting doubt on the solutions -- sounds to some like smart politics.
"As far as where tea partiers are, I'm not sure these voters are with Romney anyway," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report. "I'm not sure he's got a lot to lose."
Ultimately, Duffy said Romney's views could appeal to Democrats and independents in the general election -- should he survive the GOP primaries.
Jim DiPeso, vice president for communications and policy at Republicans for Environmental Protection, said Romney's remarks on climate science are a "welcome development" at a time when tea party conservatives and climate skeptics have pushed GOP lawmakers to abandon past pro-environmental positions.
"In some sense, if a candidate can return to where Bush was toward the end of his presidency, you can almost read that as progress given what's happened over the last couple of years," DiPeso said.
Several Republicans say they are at a loss to define the winning strategy on climate change given their party's every-changing political landscape.
"It's very tricky," said Steve Hayward, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "A lot of the Republican base is deep into skepticism. The Democratic base is deep into climate orthodoxy. A lot of people in the middle don't know what they think or don't much care. I think it's tough to thread the needle in the middle anymore on either side."
In 2008, McCain took considerable heat from his GOP rivals when he took his pro cap-and-trade stance. At the time, he credited his view in part to questions he faced while on the campaign trail in 2000 against Bush, when a man dressed in a superhero costume and calling himself Captain Climate followed McCain around the state asking about the issue.
"I don't know, to tell you the truth, what their priorities are this time," McCain said Tuesday when asked about climate change in New Hampshire. "But I think again, jobs and the economy are the big issue there. But there is a strong environmental movement in New Hampshire. I'm not sure how what the best way to approach the issue is."