When it comes to climate change, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was once thought to be among the most progressive Republicans in the hunt for presidency—a candidate who accepts the science of global warming and supports the need to regulate the emissions causing it.
But late in the second hour of the fourth Republican presidential debate -- hosted by Fox Business Network and The Wall Street Journal -- Paul appeared to repudiate those principles entirely.
Moderator Maria Bartiromo asked the right question, pressing Paul on how he might grow the economy while meaningfully cutting coal, oil and gas emissions. It's a bright line between the two parties, with Paul's Republican rivals believing that the business costs of President Obama's efforts to cut emissions are too great, and the environmental benefits too few.
But Tuesday night marks the first time this campaign season that Paul has full-throatedly agreed, pushing hard against Martin O'Malley, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, the three Democratic candidates. They support Obama's Clean Power Plan, which, if it survives legal challenge, would limit — for the first time ever — the amount of carbon power plants can pump into the atmosphere.
As for Paul: "The first thing I would do as president is repeal [the Clean Power Plan]."
In explaining why, Paul veered away from established science, which attributes the vast majority of global warming to human activity.
The average planetary temperature has risen more than a full degree Fahrenheit since the start of the Industrial Revolution, a spike that tracks closely with a sharp rise in carbon emissions.
But Paul isn't convinced by the science, famously supported by 97 percent of climate scientists and every major scientific body on earth.
"Man may have a role in our climate," Paul acknowledged, "but I think nature may also have a role."
He went on to reprise a series of now-familiar Republican positions, including an all-of-the-above energy plan and expanded oil and gas drilling on American land.
"We need energy in all forms," Paul said.
To get that energy Paul said he supports only a modest and unspecified set of regulations. But his broader principles are now clear: "Free people up. Let them drill. Let them explore."
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush made a similar point earlier. "The clean power act, we ought to repeal that and -- and start over on that.," he said. "We should repeal the rules because the economic costs of this far exceed the social benefit."
Last month four Republican senators formed a climate change working group, pledging to weave together jobs, innovation, and environmental protection. But for Rand Paul and the other top candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, the issue is apparently still not even worth acknowledging as real.