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This is a good time to be a Republican climate change skeptic -- at least one who doesn't live below sea level, in a flood plain or in the path of a deadly heatwave, tornado or hurricane.

It's strange, experts say, because more and more members of the party believe climate change is a real thing. But with the economy down, Americans have turned away from the issue -- leaving a Republican vacuum the tea party has filled with skepticism. And in DC this week, the skeptics are gathering to celebrate their ascendancy.

Growing numbers of Americans tell Gallup that fears over climate change are "generally exaggerated." When economic times were good, say in 2006, more said climate change was "generally underestimated."

On the campaign trail, Republicans who used to support climate change legislation are running away from that position with reckless abandon -- with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty literally apologizing for his past support and swearing he now no longer believes humans contribute to the changing environment. Frontrunner and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said recently that humans contribute to climate change, leading Rush Limbaugh to immediately call his campaign doomed.

And in Congress, not a single member of the newly Republican-controlled House energy committee will vote to say climate change is a real thing.

With that (unprecedentedly hot and strangely strong) wind at their backs, America's professional climate change skeptics gather for the Sixth Annual Heartland Institute International Convention on Climate Change. If you want to know what that looks like, keep in mind that Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who's known for flying around the world to tout the hoax of climate change, was scheduled to be Thursday morning's keynote speaker.

He couldn't make it, but did make sure some words got through. "It is my hope that over the next two days you will take a little time to note the tremendous successes we have enjoyed," Inhofe told attendees in a statement. "Today the mood in Washington is significantly different."

The speakers that filled in for him in the opening sessions were certainly taking credit for the newfound climate skepticism in the GOP. The conference was founded in the era when Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth briefly made climate change a national obsession. The folks here at Heartland say they helped tamp that down by pushing back hard and helping spread the Climategate conspiracy.

This is a different GOP climate than four years ago, when the economy was strong and Americans were ready to talk about the environment. That's about the time Republicans were ready to briefly stop calling climate change a myth.

One new study shows changing back to skepticism on the topic could cost the Republicans votes. The survey by Stanford University found "voters tend to favor political candidates who believe that humans have contributed to global warming and that the nation should take action by switching from fossil fuels to solar and wind power," according to Environmental Health News.

So, while they ignore the findings of the vast majority of climate scientists and turn their backs on the environment, Republicans may also be shooting themselves in the electoral foot.

What happened?

"I think it's almost entirely because of the rise of the tea party," the Sierra Club's John Coequyt told TPM. He said the change is "not reflective of any major change in the Republican party itself."

Former Rep.Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), a former chair of the House energy committee and an ardent supporter of climate change science, agreed. On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, he refused the suggestion that the GOP is swinging back toward climate change skepticism, blaming the shifting rhetoric from his party's top leadership on the economy. The call was hosted by the Center for American Progress and was aimed at rebutting the Heartland Institute's conference.

Boehlert said that the big Republican names running for President and doing it by talking about how either a.) there is no such thing as climate change or b.) if there is, we don't really need to deal with it right now are really just hiding their green leanings to win primary votes.
A number of those [candidates] might agree that climate change is real and know intellectually that we have to deal with it responsibly sooner rather than later, [but] they're afraid that if they focus any of their attention on something other than the need for jobs...they're afraid that if they deviate one millimeter from that basic thrust of attention they will be accused of taking their eye off the ball.