The Obama administration officially committed the United States Thursday to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent within 10 years. This is the sort of U.S. leadership necessary to keep major emitting nations moving toward significant curbs on the gases that cause global warming, a world effort that negotiators hope to formalize at a major conference in Paris this year.

As you might expect, much of the Republican reaction was irresponsible and counterproductive. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), for one, tried to sabotage the incipient global carbon effort: “Considering that two-thirds of the U.S. federal government hasn’t even signed off on the Clean Power Plan and 13 states have already pledged to fight it, our international partners should proceed with caution before entering into a binding, unattainable deal,” he said. In other words, McConnell counseled other countries that the United States wasn’t likely to keep its promises . . . because of opposition from McConnell and his party.

That’s not to say that Republicans have to accept the Obama administration’s policy without criticism or objection. Here, for example, is Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on Tuesday’s announcement:

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“The Obama administration’s national energy policy is practically a national windmill policy — which is like going to war in sailboats when nuclear warships are available. If the administration is serious about achieving energy independence and protecting our environment, it should work with Congress to unleash the clean, cheap, reliable sources of energy we need to power our 21st-century economy. That means doubling government-sponsored energy research, building more nuclear reactors, ending Washington’s obsession with wasteful subsidies like the wind production tax credit and solving our country’s nuclear waste stalemate.”

Alexander didn’t challenge the need to cut carbon dioxide emissions. He didn’t argue that American leadership will be useless because other nations won’t follow. He didn’t insist that inaction is somehow the best policy. He didn’t even object to President Obama’s topline goal to cut emissions 26 percent to 28 percent. Alexander criticized the way the president wants to get there, and he offered an alternative.

The wisdom of his alternative is debatable. But that’s just the sort of discussion the country should have been having for years now — about how, not whether, to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The GOP has been nearly absent on that question, when a responsible conservative party could have been pushing the country toward more economically efficient anti-emissions policy than the program that the Obama administration ended up with.

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There’s research suggesting that the global warming issue is now a matter of political-cultural identity and loyalty, with Republican climate doubters resolutely resistant to evidence-based appeals from outsiders. It might be that only Republicans can move their party in a more productive direction. All the more reason for GOP leaders, who should know better, to behave more like Lamar Alexander and less like Mitch McConnell.

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