This year’s unremitting heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and freak storms have thrust climate change back into the spotlight. But even with the issue fresh in people’s minds—not to mention in media coverage and Washington’s echo chamber—climate change hasn’t made it onto the priority list that matters most: the presidential campaign trail.
President Obama and presumptive GOP opponent Mitt Romney seem to have “reached a point of détente on the issue,” said Dirk Forrister, who worked on climate issues in the Clinton administration and now heads the International Emissions Trading Association. “Neither of the presidential candidates seems to want to talk about it, and yet it is an issue that both of them would have to deal with.”
Other issues will force the election’s winner to deal with climate change regardless of what he or his supporters might prefer.
A recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upholding the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions means those efforts can be nullified by Congress only through changes in the Clean Air Act, which hasn’t been amended since 1990—and only then after years of debate. Romney has pledged to exempt carbon dioxide from the Clean Air Act, and legal scholars on both sides of the fight agree that kind of significant legislative change would be a Herculean task no matter what the results come Election Day.
The pressures facing the next president to work with other nations on climate change will only become greater, both as part of the formal United Nations process and through related issues. To wit: The State and Transportation departments must address a European Union cap-and-trade law aimed at forcing airlines to pay fees for greenhouse gases emitted by all flights to and from Europe.
Yet neither candidate is addressing these unavoidable realities—at least not yet. Obama and Romney both have plenty of reason not to want to remind voters about their track records on global warming.
Dealing with a gridlocked Congress, Obama has managed to make progress around the edges—tougher fuel-economy standards that cut emissions from cars, for instance—but he has been unable to fulfill his 2008 campaign promise to fight climate change by putting a price on carbon emissions. Having failed on that front, the president still faces attacks from fossil-fuel interests for having tried. He doesn’t want to remind his environmental base that he hasn’t kept his promise, and he doesn’t want to fuel his opponents’ attacks by saying he will try again if reelected.
It’s no coincidence that when Obama made a fleeting mention of global warming during a campaign fundraiser in California last week, he stressed that it was important to “have smart regulations in place that are going to deal with issues like climate change.” He has replaced his 2008 promise to pass legislation pricing carbon with a quieter pledge to effectively regulate greenhouse-gas emissions.
Romney, meanwhile, doesn’t want to provoke charges of flip-flopping on yet another issue. As governor of Massachusetts, he acknowledged climate change was occurring and pledged to address it. Facing pressure from tea partiers and other conservative groups who deny man-made global warming, Romney has equivocated on climate science for the past year and abandoned the rather modest policies he implemented as governor.
New polls by Yale University and the Brookings Institution show that Americans are increasingly linking extreme weather to climate change and acknowledging that the Earth is warming. Yet other polling shows that Americans are not concerned about global warming compared with other issues: Economic and job concerns dominate.
The prevailing wisdom is that neither candidate could benefit politically from addressing global warming; Obama and Romney probably won’t talk about it much at all until or unless they’re explicitly asked. But that conventional wisdom is challenged in a new study by Stanford University professors and the polling director at The Washington Post. It finds that a presidential candidate could benefit politically benefit by talking about the issue. The study, conducted in part by Stanford social psychology professor Jon Krosnick, finds that Obama in particular could gain by touting his position on global warming.
The research finds that about 15 percent of the country is engaged on climate change and that most of that group supports action to solve the problem. “In this election, most likely the president stands to gain,” Krosnick said. “The more explicitly green he is, the better off he is.” If Romney had not equivocated on his positions, Krosnick said, he “could have nullified the advantage that it looks like Obama has at this point.”
Krosnick has presented his findings to people in the Obama administration on multiple occasions. But at least for now, it appears that the president’s campaign doesn’t think he has much to gain by talking about climate change, no matter how crazy the weather gets.
This article appears in the Aug. 2, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.