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NPR's Scott Horsley reports on the shift in the political climate.
SCOTT HORSLEY: Four years ago, Jon Huntsman joined other Western governors in a regional effort to limit greenhouse gases. Huntsman defended the idea of capping emissions and trading pollution permits in a 2008 debate recorded by KCPW.
JON HUNTSMAN: Until we put a value on carbon, we're never going to be able to get serious about dealing with climate change longer term. Now, putting a value on carbon either suggests that you go to a carbon tax or you get a cap-and-trade system.
HORSLEY: Huntsman's GOP rival Mitt Romney has also backed away from cap and trade after supporting the idea years ago. Romney made his opposition clear in a New Hampshire town hall meeting earlier this month.
MITT ROMNEY: A lot of people have talked about cap and trade. Look, we cannot, as America, enter into an agreement that causes our energy to become more expensive if we let the big emitters of the future like China and Brazil off the hook.
HORSLEY: And Tim Pawlenty has backpedaled furiously on climate change, apologizing during a Fox News debate for supporting cap and trade when he was governor of Minnesota.
TIM PAWLENTY: I was wrong. It was a mistake. And I'm sorry. It's ham-fisted. It's going to be harmful to the economy.
HORSLEY: Republican leaders' interest in global warming has cooled considerably since 2008, when John McCain was the party's standard-bearer and a strong advocate for capping greenhouse gases.
JOHN MCCAIN: The facts of global warming demand our urgent attention, especially in Washington.
HORSLEY: To Navin Nayak of the League of Conservation Voters, that now feels like the good old days.
NAVIN NAYAK: Everyone agreed that the sun rose in the East and it set in the West. And suddenly, we emerge four years later with a field of Republicans that are trying to tell us that no, the sun actually rises in the West, and we're not sure if it sets.
HORSLEY: Some Republican White House hopefuls - notably Michele Bachmann - question the scientific consensus that greenhouse gases are likely a big cause of climate change.
MICHELE BACHMANN: Carbon dioxide is natural. It occurs in earth. Carbon dioxide is not a harmful gas. It is a harmless gas.
HORSLEY: Environmentalist Nayak gives Huntsman and Romney some credit for at least acknowledging the science behind climate change. But he says simply admitting there's a problem is not enough.
NAYAK: It would be like a presidential candidate saying, yes, the debt is a serious crisis, but I'm not going to introduce any plan to actually deal with it.
HORSLEY: But it's not just GOP candidates who've changed their tune in recent years.
ANDREW KOHUT: The issue has become politicized.
HORSLEY: Five years ago, 77 percent of the public believed in global warming. Today, that figure is less than 60 percent. And only about a third of the public thinks man-made carbon emissions are to blame.
KOHUT: And most of that decline has occurred among Republicans and independents. The partisan gap is huge.
HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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