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High Noon For Climate Skepticism

It's been a good year for climate skeptics. Not, mind you, because they've been vindicated at all on the merits. Quite the opposite: 2010 is shaping up to be the hottest year on record, Arctic sea ice continues to thin out, heat waves have been torching Russia, and nearly one-fifth of Pakistan has been submerged underwater. The science on global warming is still overwhelming. But politically, skepticism is at its zenith.

Consider: During the sweatiest U.S. summer in recorded history, and in the midst of a major oil catastrophe in the Gulf, the Senate didn't even bother to take a vote on a bill to limit carbon emissions. Skeptics managed to inflate the Climategate non-scandal into a breathless media event and launched a high-profile attack on the IPCC over—what was it again?—a minor misstatement about Himalayan glaciers. Republicans and coal-state Democrats are now trying to chip away at the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and in California, coal and gas companies are making a major push to repeal the state's sweeping climate law, AB32.

And here's the punch line. Next year, opponents of doing anything about global warming are likely to have a stronger hand still. The GOP will likely take the House and make substantial gains in the Senate, and these aren't green, cuddly Republicans. According to Think Progress, only one of the 37 Republican candidates for Senate supports climate action—Mike Castle in Delaware (and there's a non-trivial chance he could lose his primary today). The skeptic pressure on Republicans is immense: In Illinois, Mark Kirk previously voted for the Waxman-Markey climate bill in the House, but he now says he opposes cap-and-trade. Here's a sampling of what to expect from the new class:

Kentucky's Rand Paul: "Now Osama bin Laden had a quote yesterday. He’s says he’s after the climate change as well. It’s a bigger issue, we need to watch ‘em. Not only because it may or may not be true, but they’re making up their facts to fit their conclusions. They’ve already caught ‘em doing this.”

Missouri's Roy Blunt: "There isn’t any real science to say we are altering the climate path of the earth."

Nevada's Sharron Angle: "I don’t, however, buy into the whole … man-caused global warming, man-caused climate change mantra of the left. I believe that there’s not sound science to back that up."

It's no different in the House. Over at Daily Kos, RLMiller has been keeping tabs on the GOP's fresh crop of "climate zombies." In Arizona, for instance, Ruth McClung, who's running for Arizona's seventh congressional district, claims to have conducted her own independent investigation into the matter: "After researching the causes of temperature fluctuations on earth, I found the largest factor to be the sun." (Tragically, her research doesn't seem to have included noting that solar activity has been decreasing over the past decade while temperatures have been rising.)

Odds are, then, climate legislation will be pulseless for the next two years. In the House, Joe Barton may well reclaim the chair of the energy and commerce committee. Barton, recall, is the guy who apologized to BP in the wake of the oil spill, and the last time he ran the House energy committee, in 2005, he helped author a bill whose defining feature was billions of dollars in oil and coal subsidies. For most greens, simply preserving the status quo will be the rosiest scenario with Barton in charge. (And even if Barton, who is technically term-limited, doesn't get the chair, there's not a ton of daylight between him and the other Republican candidates.)

In the Senate, meanwhile, Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, who was the ranking Republican on the energy committee, was toppled in her primary. Murkowski drew scorn from enviros for always appearing to believe global warming was a problem but never supporting any of the concrete plans to address it. Her replacement, though, is likely to be North Carolina's Richard Burr, who doesn't even pretend to care about climate change. (The one bright spot is that Jeff Bingaman, the Democratic chair, is pretty good at working with Republicans and could manage to eke out some modest bipartisan legislation from this committee—like a renewable electricity standard—though it doesn't seem like anything could get past the House.)

Indeed, things have gotten so bad that some greens are wondering if they can go back to John McCain. Didn't he once support cap-and-trade, after all? And now that he's dispatched his primary challenge from JD Hayworth, why wouldn't he want to resume his leadership role on this issue? Over at Politico, Darren Samuelsohn explores this possibility, although it's notable that McCain's own spokeswoman insists that McCain still has no interest in working in climate policy—instead, he's just going to focus on nuclear power and Yucca Mountain.

So that leaves, as always, the EPA. For now, Lisa Jackson's agency still has the power to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. As I explored in this piece, that's an option that could do a fair bit to tamp down on carbon levels. But Republicans in the next Congress will likely try hard to a) strip the EPA of its authority or b) deny the agency the funds it needs to enforce these regulations. Obama has already said he'd veto any such efforts, but they're likely to resurface as riders to all sorts of appropriations bills. That means Obama will have to fight this duel again and again and again. Does the White House actually have the stomach for that? Green groups are suiting up to defend the Clean Air Act, but the next two years are going to be grueling.

(Rand Paul Flickr image: Gage Skidmore)