This year’s unremitting heat, 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 one kept by the two presidential contenders.
“It’s going to take something like [the presidential debates] to put it into the campaign,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who advised Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and is now president of the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank. In 2008, both McCain and then-Sen. Barack Obama campaigned on the promise to address climate change.
The campaigns of Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney both have apparently made the calculation that talking about global warming won’t help them politically. Most polling shows that voters care chiefly about economic issues and much less about climate change. Yet two recent studies, one by researchers at Yale University and another from Stanford University, seem to buck that conventional wisdom. These studies indicate that presidential candidates could benefit politically if they suggested action should be taken to lessen the impact of global warming.
Even though neither candidate wants to talk about climate, the winner of the election will have to address it regardless of what he or his supporters might prefer.
A recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit 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.
Although Romney has pledged to exempt carbon dioxide from the Clean Air Act, legal scholars on both sides of the fight agree that passing such significant legislation would be a Herculean task no matter what happens on Election Day.
If Obama wins reelection, the looming question will be how aggressively he follows through on EPA’s greenhouse-gas rules. Several facets of the regulations have been delayed within the past year, leading experts to wonder whether the delays are due to electioneering or genuine concern for the affected industries, which include utilities and oil refineries.
The pressures facing the next president to work with other nations on climate change will also become greater, both as part of the formal United Nations process and through related issues.
These realities aside, Obama and Romney have plenty of reason not to remind voters about their track records on global warming.
Obama has managed to make progress around the edges—tougher fuel-economy standards that cut emissions from cars, for instance—but as a result of congressional gridlock, 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.
Romney, meanwhile, doesn’t want to provoke charges of flip-flopping. As Massachusetts governor, he acknowledged climate change was occurring and pledged to address it. Facing pressure from tea partiers and other conservative groups who doubt that humans are causing global warming, Romney has equivocated on climate science for the past year and abandoned the rather modest policies he implemented as governor.