05/31/2011 01:45 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2011

Toxic Litmus Test

Republican presidential hopefuls are in a serious environmental (and political) quandary. To gain the nomination, someone will have to win the bulk of the GOP primary elections. To accomplish that will likely require the support of the Tea Party, whose numbers constitute the swing vote in many of the state contests. This poses a dilemma because recent polls show approximately 70 percent of the Tea Party's membership consider global warming a non-issue. It is a posture that runs counter to an international scientific consensus and popular public sentiment.

But the political challenge for the eventual GOP nominee doesn't stop there. Conspiracy themes abound in Republican ranks. At the top of the list is the belief that global warming is nothing but a democratic Left Wing ploy to justify expansion of big government's control over marketplace activity and individual freedom. It's not a theory that is going to resonate with a whole lot of the American electorate.

To complicate matters, even among Republican Primary voters who are not Tea Party adherents and acknowledge that global warming exists, a goodly number consider the temperature rise a natural phenomenon for which mitigation efforts would be a waste of time and money. Again, this is not a sentiment shared by the majority of voters in the general population.

So how does the eventual Republican nominee appeal to a wider audience without alienating his or her base?

If a skeptic all along and determined to remain that way after snaring the nomination, the candidate will be at odds with the bulk of independent voters, a bloc crucial to an election victory. Global warming-denial could get even more politically damaging during the general campaign. Suppose, as is likely to be the case, new evidence keeps emerging of heat-related environmental changes occurring at a speed unprecedented in recorded human history. That would be prime fodder for many an unfavorable sound bite.

What if the Republican nominee in the past had publicly acknowledged a global warming problem but watered down this viewpoint during the primaries to appease the Tea Party faithful? [Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman, and Newt Gingrich are all headed in that direction.]

In the general campaign, the candidate would be stuck with either continuing a line of thought out of step with a pivotal segment of voters or reverting to original form, thereby inviting accusations of being an opportunistic flip-flopper.

It's not a happy choice. Either wisdom or authenticity would take a hit, leading to the inescapable conclusion that any primary which requires the downplaying of global warming to assure victory has created a toxic litmus test.

Edward Flattau's fourth book, Green Morality, is now available.