This post is by ClimateProgress guest blogger Bill Becker, Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.

In recent years, conservatives have mastered the art of hijacking morality. They have positioned themselves as the champions of family values, faith and good old-fashioned patriotism. But on what some regard as the moral issue of our time, the party’s presidential candidates are turning their backs.

That issue is global warming.

Al Gore is not the only prominent leader who considers climate change a moral issue. Three years ago, the National Association of Evangelicals issued its "Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility." It reads in part:

We affirm that God-given dominion is a sacred responsibility to steward the earth and not a license to abuse the creation of which we are a part. Because clean air, pure water, and adequate resources are crucial to public health and civic order, government has an obligation to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation. At about the same time, Christianity Today, an influential evangelical magazine, opined that "Christians should make it clear to governments and businesses that we are willing to adapt our lifestyles and support steps towards changes that protect our environment."

The magazine endorsed the bipartisan global warming bill co-sponsored by Senators Joe Lieberman (I/D CT) and John McCain (R-AZ).

Yet, the other Republican presidential candidates are keeping their distance from the issue as though it is their weird Aunt Ethel with halitosis.

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For those who believe that global warming transcends parties, there was a momentary glimmer of hope on Dec. 11 when, on the CBS Evening News, Katie Couric asked five of the GOP candidates point-blank whether they think climate change is overblown. Only Fred Thompson retreated into full waffle, saying we need more research.

Mitt Romney answered, "I think the risks of climate change are real … And I think human activity is contributing to it."

Rudy Giuliani answered, "There is global warming. Human beings are contributing to it."

Mike Huckabee said, "I don’t know … But here’s one thing I do know, that we ought to not let this become this big political football and point of argument. We all ought to agree that we live on this planet as guests. I think Republicans have made a big mistake by not being more on the forefront of conservationism."

McCain showed he still is capable of straight-talk: "I have been to Greenland, I have been to the South Pole. I’ve been to the Arctic and I know it’s real," he said. "I’ve been involved in this effort for many years. And we’ve got to act. And unfortunately, we have not acted either as a federal government or a Congress."

Why not, Couric asked him.

"Special interests," McCain replied. "It’s the special interests. It’s the utility companies and the petroleum companies and other special interests. They’re the ones that have blocked progress in the Congress of the United States and the administration."

The climate-action community was atwitter with hope after the Couric interviews. But it didn’t last long. The next night in their televised debate in Iowa, with their base watching, the Republican candidates followed Thompson’s lead and slipped back into silence. As CNN reported:

When asked to raise their hands if they believed global climate change is a serious threat and caused by human activity, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson said he wasn’t "doing hand shows today." Other candidates agreed. Thompson asked if he could answer the question instead, but was told no.

This was largely the same group that had no trouble with a show of hands last May when they were asked which of them do not believe in evolution:

While most of the Democrat candidates have issued fairly detailed and thoughtful position papers on climate change, most of the Republicans have not. Terry Tamminen, the policy expert who helped Republican governors Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Charlie Crist of Florida design the most aggressive climate action plans in the nation, has started grading the candidates on their positions. By his reckoning, six of the Democrats have earned A’s or B’s, but all of the Republicans — even McCain — have "incompletes."

Part II will look at why conservatives should share ownership of this issue.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.