Against the backdrop of the climate change summit in Denmark this week, U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio is hammering rival Charlie Crist's "cap-and-trade scheme" — though he voted for a bill backed by the governor requiring state officials to devise such a plan.
As the leader of the Florida House in 2008, Rubio presided over a unanimous vote in favor of directing the state Department of Environmental Protection to develop ground rules for companies to limit their carbon emissions.
Now he's questioning whether global warming is man-made.
"Rubio is a total flip-flopper," said Gerald Karnas, Florida director of the Environmental Defense Fund. "Under his leadership, progressive energy legislation passed the House."
Rubio said Thursday that his position on cap and trade — which allows companies that don't reach emission caps to trade pollution credits — hasn't changed. The Florida law's requirement that the plan return to the GOP-led Legislature for final approval appeased the business lobby and, Rubio said, was guaranteed to stop it in its tracks.
"It has worked out as it was designed to work out, which was to stop a cap-and-trade system in Florida," Rubio said Thursday.
"That's a bit disingenuous," said Jay Liles of the Florida Wildlife Federation, who lobbied for the bill along with Karnas and other environmental activists. "For Rubio to say that all along he knew it wouldn't really come to pass is illogical. He set the stage for (cap and trade) to happen."
The Crist campaign also called out Rubio on the bill this week, part of a growing counteroffensive against Rubio's bid for conservative voters who could swing the GOP primary for Florida's open Senate seat. The Club for Growth, which runs attack ads against moderate and liberal candidates nationwide, cited Crist's support for cap-and-trade legislation when it recently endorsed Rubio.
Rubio did raise concerns about the potential costs of cap-and-trade as soon as Crist made climate change a priority of his new administration in 2007. In a column in the Miami Herald that year, Rubio pointed to a think tank's estimate that emission caps would hike consumers' utility bills by an estimated 25 percent to 50 percent. He advocated tax incentives for energy-efficient companies and investments in ethanol and other biofuels instead.
By 2008, as Crist's poll ratings held strong, Rubio called a federal cap-and-trade system "inevitable" and said Florida should be at the forefront. He hired a leading climate change expert from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to advise lawmakers and appointed Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin — who sounded the alarm on climate change years ago — to a statewide energy board.
"The legislation was passed to move forward on cap-and-trade policy, and certainly Marco Rubio didn't stand in the way of that legislation passing and my understanding was that he was supportive of the process," said John Reilly, the MIT expert. "He certainly seemed to accept the science of climate change."
That was before the economy crashed, global warming took a back seat, and critics said "cap-and-tax" would doom American businesses in a recession. Now, the former West Miami lawmaker is raising questions about whether climate change is man-made.
"I'm not a scientist. I'm not qualified to make that decision," Rubio said Thursday.
"There's a significant scientific dispute about that."
The recent disclosure of e-mails suggesting some scientists manipulated data to hype global warming has emboldened skeptics, though there is mounting evidence that man-made pollutants have contributed to rising temperatures.
Crist garnered national publicity for convening a climate change summit with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and issuing executive orders in 2007 that set targets for greenhouse gas emissions.
Rubio maintained Thursday that the legislation he supported had the effect of neutering Crist's executive orders. "We took the power out of his hands and put it into the hands of the Legislature," he said. "If we passed no legislation, his executive orders would have become law."
That's not true, said Mike Sole, Crist's appointed secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. "An executive order would not have been able to implement a cap-and-trade system on its own. We needed the legislative authority," Sole said.
The department could present a cap-and-trade plan as early as January, but Sole said it's not ready. Since Crist began campaigning for the U.S. Senate and weathering attacks from conservatives, he has backed off his cap-and-trade crusade.
"Cap and trade is complicated," Sole said. "We need to make sure it's a good fit for Florida and that we do it in a smart way."