Climate Change Trap

05/05/2015 12:59 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush's public declaration of concern about climate change has put himself and other Republican presidential aspirants in a political bind.

He has admitted the existence of a problem that a majority of the general public acknowledges but a majority of his own party does not. The hard core GOP base considers the climate issue to be an artificial creation of liberal democrats to amass political power through regulatory expansion. From the GOP diehards' perspective, climate change is nothing more than the weather's natural variability.

If Bush stands by his public statement, he is likely to alienate the Party's ideological base of climate change deniers, the dominant voting bloc in the GOP presidential primary.
If he walks back his statement to mollify the Republican hard core (as he seems intent on doing), he risks offending the electorate in a national election. Polls show that a majority of the public believe global warming is a bona fide problem that demands immediate attention.
Since Democrats constitute a large percentage of that national majority, their presidential nominee will undoubtedly be looking to exploit any inconsistencies in the Republican opponent's position on climate change.

There should be ample opportunity to do just that. Any attempt by Bush and his rivals to appease the base and the general public by straddling the difference between the two is likely to please no one.

To walk a fine line, Bush maintains that whatever challenge climate change poses, it is unclear how much of a causative factor is human behavior. To further ingratiate himself with the party faithful, he contends that the costs to mitigate climate change appear at present prohibitively expensive.

It's a highly rebuttable stance since numerous studies show it will cost the nation far more to do nothing than take corrective action.

Meanwhile, much to the GOP base's displeasure, Bush's many caveats cannot erase his public tacit admission that global warming is not just a natural phenomenon. Conversely, climate change believers are likely to view his position that there's not much we can do about it as a lack of leadership.

The environmental community and its democratic allies have responded to climate change by advocating a "better safe than sorry" approach. Rather than gamble with the future, they urge imposition of "no regrets" strategies that make sense even if the global warming threat should prove overblown. That means resorting to greater energy efficiency, transitioning from fossil fuel to clean, renewable energy, and stepping up reforestation.

Although these alternatives are appealing to the majority of Americans, they don't fit snugly into the Republican base's narrative of climate change denial. Thus, most Republican politicians' have responded that greater efficiency and reforestation are fine but of limited impact. As for renewables, they are desirable but not advanced enough to replace fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

These Republican putdowns are doomed in the court of public opinion. The price of wind, solar, and other alternatives to carbon-emitting fossil fuel have dropped dramatically and become more competitive with each passing day. In 2014, seven percent of Germany's electricity was generated by solar panels, one out of every seven Australian homes had rooftop solar, 85 percent of Israeli households heated their water with solar panels, and more than half of the homebuilders in our country offered solar heating as an option.

Governor Bush's declaration that climate change is a legitimate concern has placed it front and center, likely forcing all Republican presidential candidates to take a more explicit stand than they would prefer. Because of the conflicting views of their base and the general population, the presidential hopefuls can't have it both ways. Hence, whatever they end up saying during primary season is bound to hurt them politically, one way or another.