ChristiePhoto: Chuck WalkerIn most of the democratic world, it’s possible to be a conservative leader who doesn’t completely dismiss climate science. In fact, it’s common. The dismissive position of the American Right’s elite is unique.

This was embarrassingly clear at the recent International Security Forum, where European military leaders urged Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to take seriously the threat of famine, war, and instability driven by global warming. Graham’s pathetic reply? He said a forceful national climate bill “just doesn’t play with the public anymore.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie brings the latest evidence that there’s no room in the Right’s top ranks for anything but suspicion of climate science. Here’s his response to a town hall question on Tuesday:

Mankind, is it responsible for global warming? Well I’ll tell you something. I have seen evidence on both sides of it. I’m skeptical — I’m skeptical. And you know, I think at the end of this, I think we’re going to need more science to prove something one way or the other.

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Christie ran for governor of a decidedly blue state last year (it hadn’t elected a Republican to statewide office in 12 years) with an energy platform that included tax credits for wind-energy businesses and policies to continue the state’s solar energy growth.

But as his rumored presidential ambitions have gotten more and more attention (he’s been showing up on lists of possible 2012 contenders and finished first in an October Tea Party straw poll), Christie’s faced pressure from the establishment Right to abandon such positions. Americans for Prosperity, an astroturf group funded by the petroleum company Koch Industries, is lobbying both Christie and the state legislature to quit the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program for power plants in 10 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.

Dropping out would wreak havoc on RGGI, which has cut emissions, raised money for retrofitting jobs programs, and produced none of the market corruption predicted by critics. Quitting would also cause major headaches for energy companies trying to make long-term plans. New Jersey’s largest utility, the coal-and-nuclear-invested PSEG, supports the program and wants to stay in, an executive told me last week.

But leaving RGGI would be a way for Christie to prove his bona fides to conservative taste-makers.

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“It’s difficult for him to be a credible option for conservatives nationally if he doesn’t take a stand on cap and trade, and that’s why we think we’ll be able to appeal to him,” Phil Kerpen, director of policy at Americans for Prosperity, told Politico earlier this fall.

Christie hasn’t said publicly what he plans to do with RGGI. His town hall comments last night don’t suggest a vigorous defender of clean-energy investment. And by killing the ARC rail-tunnel project last month, he’s shown he’s willing to block major regional cooperation. (It also earned him a $271 million bill for transportation funding he must return to the feds.)

He’s also raided the state’s revenue from RGGI — $65 million — to plug holes in the state budget. The state’s Global Warming Response Act says 80 percent of that money should go toward energy-related projects. You can argue that the money is better used preventing teacher or firefighter layoffs, but the raid undermines the effectiveness of cap-and-trade, which is meant to provide both a cap on pollution and revenue (from permits that polluters buy) to invest in energy efficiency. Christie’s move doesn’t signal much faith in the program.

He wouldn’t be the first governor to become more radical to pursue presidential ambitions. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) also abandoned his clean-energy leadership (and his most significant legislative accomplishments) when the “drill, baby, drill” non-solution rose to prominence in 2008.

In Michigan, voters elected one of the only Republican candidates who took a more nuanced position on clean-energy and smart-growth development this fall in Rick Snyder, a former Gateway software executive and venture capitalist. Progressives in the state are calling on him to make good on his tentative support for green transportation projects. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s room in the GOP for anything like that.

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