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By Carl Pope

Polluter cash sets the Republican environmental agenda

Tom Toles, Washington Post/Universal Uclick

A tectonic shift is rattling U.S. politics, one with enormous implications for the environment. It can be seen most clearly in the headlong flight by the leading Republican presidential candidates from their previous mainstream, if conservative, environmental records. (See "It Was a Mistake," May/June.)

As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney was one of the first governors to take on the health risks of coal, saying he wasn't going to preserve jobs that killed people. He also enrolled Massachusetts in the nation's first regional cap-and-trade program starting in 2003, but pulled out of it in 2005.

Newt Gingrich started out in the 1970s as a moderate environmentalist supported by the Georgia League of Conservation Voters. In 2008 he appeared with Nancy Pelosi in a television ad sponsored by Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection and proclaimed, "Our country must take action to address climate change."

In 2006, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty rejected George W. Bush's attempt to ease mercury-pollution standards, instead giving his state a tough, effective rule for cleaning up the potent neurotoxin. He also joined a regional carbon initiative and signed one of the country's toughest renewable-energy standards at the time.

Jon Huntsman has called Western dependence on Persian Gulf oil "Churchill's blunder." Asked to oppose EPA regulation of CO2 pollution, the then Utah governor declined and signed up with California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's Western Climate Initiative. "We are leading the charge," Huntsman said in May 2007. "We are not waiting for Washington any longer."

All the above politicians are now running away from their responsible, prudent records. Pawlenty falsely claims that he only "flirted" with cap and trade and that it is based on "flawed" science. Gingrich bizarrely maintains that sitting next to Nancy Pelosi and saying "we agree our country must take action" on climate change was in fact a "debate." To his credit, Romney stands by the reality of global warming; however, he steers clear of endorsing cap and trade. And Huntsman merely says that we can't act on climate change until the economy improves.

It's not only the party's presidential contenders who are rewriting their records. Michigan representative Fred Upton, who once voted for clean air and water and to phase out wasteful incandescent lightbulbs, is now leading the charge against the EPA's efforts to clean up CO2 pollution.

These politicians are not responding to a changed public mood. Polls show that half of Republican voters (and two-thirds of all Americans) want national action on climate change. Call it "clean energy" and 85 percent of Republicans approve. In Upton's very conservative district, voters, by a margin of 5 to 3, opposed his attacks on the Clean Air Act.

The sad fact is that the GOP has been subjected to a hostile takeover by the oil-and-gas industry—and particularly Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by ultra-right-wing brothers Charles and David Koch. It wasn't grassroots fear of solar cells that turned Republican candidates into boosters for climate change. Instead, think tanks funded by the Koch brothers, ExxonMobil, and others took advantage of the decline of fact-based media to transform climate change into a partisan issue.

The virus that has undermined the GOP and is weakening U.S. democracy is corruption. Our Supreme Court has made the United States the only democratic nation where bribery is constitutionally protected, where corporations have the privileges of citizens but none of the obligations, and where money is equated with speech. Dirty Energy has bought the party of Lincoln and now calls the shots.

CARL POPE is the chairman of the Sierra Club. E-mail; read his blog at

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