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Environmental differences

US Senate candidates heating up on the state’s climate change issues

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / December 17, 2009

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While representatives of nearly 200 nations meet in Copenhagen to discuss a strategy for combating global warming, a sharp division has emerged in the US Senate race in Massachusetts about whether carbon emissions and climate change should be addressed at all.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic nominee, says addressing global warming is essential to survival of the planet and supports federal and international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. State Senator Scott P. Brown, the Republican nominee, expresses skepticism about climate change and says he believes that legislation proposed to curb emissions is premature and would harm businesses and energy consumers.

The issue is clearly on the mind of some voters. Just last week, Brown visited the home of a voter in Harvard, Jack Farren, who asked him, “Do you think that whole global warming thing is a big fraud?’’

Brown’s answer was illustrative, in that he did not reject the fraud theory.

“It’s interesting. I think the globe is always heating and cooling,’’ he said. “It’s a natural way of ebb and flow. The thing that concerns me lately is some of the information I’ve heard about potential tampering with some of the information.’’

Brown continued, saying: “I just want to make sure if in fact . . . the earth is heating up, that we have accurate information, and it’s unbiased by scientists with no agenda. Once that’s done, then I think we can really move forward with a good plan.’’

Coakley, in an interview yesterday in Boston after addressing a breakfast meeting of commercial real estate developers, said she believes that the climate is changing, that human activity is to blame for much of the change, and that the time for action is now.

“I know that the science is complicated,’’ Coakley said. “Everybody doesn’t agree on every issue. But just because some issues may not be clear doesn’t mean that we don’t have a huge problem, and it’s a huge mistake for anyone to say, ‘It’s not a problem,’ or ‘We’re going to wait and see.’ ’’

The environment is one of a number of hot-button issues with emotional and ideological components that matter a lot to a minority of voters, but not to the majority, said Andrew E. Smith, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire and director of the UNH Survey Center. Poll after poll over the years shows voters care most about the economy, next about household issues such as health care and education, and third about issues such as climate change, abortion, and same-sex marriage, Smith said.

Coakley and Brown emerged as nominees from Dec. 8 primaries in the race to succeed the late Edward M. Kennedy, who held the Senate seat for 47 years. In the week-and-a-half since, Brown has sought to contrast himself with Coakley at every turn, while jabbing her on jobs and taxes.

Coakley, with built-in advantages based on party enrollment and recognition as a statewide officeholder, has largely ignored Brown. But this week she hit back on greenhouse emissions. Brown said Coakley would drive up energy costs with her support for so-called cap-and-trade legislation, which would cap and reduce overall carbon emissions while allowing higher emitters to purchase pollution permits from greener peers. Coakley responded by branding Brown a flip-flopper, because he had previously supported a regional cap-and-trade initiative; Brown defended himself by saying the plan he voted for nearly two years ago did not work so he had changed his mind.

But the underlying disagreement is not just about if or how government should intervene to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to potentially slow global warming. The two disagree about whether there is a problem and if it is human-induced.

Yesterday, Coakley cited statistics about the loss of shoreline on Cape Cod - where 33 acres annually are swallowed by rising sea levels, according to the multi-agency US Global Change Research Program - and said the warming behind that loss has been exacerbated by coal-burning power plants, gasoline-fueled automobiles, and other human emissions of carbon dioxide.

“We should have started yesterday on this problem, and every day we wait we’re going to be behind the battle on it,’’ said Coakley. “I think it’s really important that elected officials and the scientists who know that this is a problem continue to keep it front and center and keep pressure on Congress to make changes.’’

Brown typically skips climate change and global warming when discussing the environment; he sees the emissions debate as an economic one, spokesman Felix Browne said. On his website, under “Energy and Environment,’’ Brown supports an array of domestic alternatives to foreign oil - including wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal, and hydroelectric - but does not mention climate change. On the trail, he talks about the environment in terms of preserving open space and about ending oil dependency primarily as a foreign-policy issue.

Brown’s position on emissions and warming is not uncommon among conservatives “and it’s worthy of being heard’’ for political reasons, said Boston College political science professor Marc Landy, who has written about environmental policy.

As a fan of lively elections, Landy cheered the sparring between Brown and Coakley on emissions and the environment and said he hoped it would signal more direct engagement from Coakley, who he said has proceeded with caution as the front-runner.

“What a great opportunity for a good slugfest,’’ Landy said.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.