Climate change is now a peripheral issue in American politics, mentioned elliptically by President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney in their calls for clean energy investments. Meanwhile, the issue is almost nonexistent in the competitive Illinois races for Congress.
Jim Lehrer, moderator of the first presidential debate, received a petition of 160,000 signatures collected by nine environmental organizations last Friday.
The message to Lehrer from these environmentalists was modest: Ask one question about what each candidate will do on climate change.
“We are really optimistic that he will ask a question,” says Jeff Gohringer, spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters in Washington, D.C. But, Gohringer adds, “It’s fair to say the economy will be first and foremost.”
Climate change is now a peripheral issue in American politics, mentioned elliptically by President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney in their calls for clean energy investments. The issue is almost nonexistent in the competitive Illinois races for Congress. The situation has posed a challenge to environmentalists, with groups like the League of Conservation Voters and Sierra Club, which endorse political candidates, casting their lot with Obama.
Romney, Obama and Climate Change
America has never been an international leader on climate change, famously not joining other developed countries in signing the United Nations 1997 Kyoto Protocol to limit the greenhouse gases scientifically linked to global warming. But in 2008, both Obama and his Republican challenger, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, ran on “cap-and-trade” plans to place a hard cap on greenhouse gases emitted from polluters, while also giving polluters emissions credits that they could trade among themselves.
“Climate change was much more front and center in 2008,” says Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a non-profit in Washington, D.C. that does not endorse political candidates. “Certainly it wasn’t the dominant issue, but it was topical and both candidates gave lip service that they wanted to deal with it.”
But the cap-and-trade bill unraveled in the U.S. Senate in 2010. O’Donnell gives a commonly espoused view that “the White House did not throw its full weight into the fight. They put their political chips on health care and did not have enough political capital to do both.”
Regardless of how much responsibility the Obama administration deserves for the death of cap-and-trade, neither the President nor Congress have since made a serious effort to set long-term caps on greenhouse gases. And neither campaign, nor party platform, offers any such proposal. The 2008 Democratic Party platform called climate change an “epochal, man-made threat to our planet” in advocating for cap-and-trade.
“There has definitely been a step back,” O’Donnell says.
As with a number of issues, from health care to reproductive rights, views from Romney on climate change have shifted over time. In 2004, when he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney pursued what he called a “no regrets” climate change policy with targeted reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
As a presidential candidate, Romney has kept the “no regrets” name for his climate change policy. However, the policy itself has changed.
Romney now wants “robust government funding for research on efficient, low-emissions technology that will maintain American leadership in emerging industries,” according to written statements the candidate gave to the Web site ClimateScience.org.
The investment, though is not coupled with regulating established industries, such as coal. Instead, Romney accuses Obama of “bankrupting the coal industry” with EPA regulations that are pejoratively described as a “war on carbon dioxide,” according to ClimateScience.org.
But it is these EPA regulations, on greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle tailpipes and stationary sources such as coal plants, that encourage environmentalists. “The president has shown commitment to climate change by the actions he has taken,” says Courtney Hight, deputy national political director for the Sierra Club.
Obama told ClimateScience.org that he established “historic” limits to greenhouse gas emissions.
O’Donnell agrees that the tailpipe emission standards are significant. However, the new reporting standards for stationary greenhouse gas sources, which are the main contributor to climate change, are probably less significant. According to O’Donnell, natural gas prices are what is bankrupting the coal industry and that the EPA regulations “may not have an impact at all.”
The Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters each acknowledge that significantly more must be done on climate change than what the Obama administration has accomplished. But they blame Congress, especially the U.S. House which turned majority Republican in January 2011, for further inaction.
As for the matter of Obama not talking about climate change, Gohringer of the League of Conservation voters blames the media, not the President. “The media should be picking up on this,” Gohringer says. “This is the biggest challenge of our generation and we are not seeing the news attention it deserves.”
Climate Change on The Congressional Trail
Climate change may emerge as an issue of some consequence in the 8th district race between U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh (R-McHenry) and Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates.
The League of Conservation voters has poured money into the race, identifying Tea Party candidate Walsh as “one of five climate deniers in Congress we’re working to beat”, according to Gohringer.
But local candidates for Congress have said little about the matter.
For example, in the 17th district, which covers a large swath of northwest Illinois, U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-Colona) is down to the wire with Democratic challenger Cheri Bustos of Moline. The campaign has centered on job creation, specifically which candidate will stanch the flow of jobs leaving the country. Medicare and social security are also hot topics. Neither campaign mentions climate change on their Web site.
According to an e-mail from campaign spokesman Arden Manning, Bustos wants to “advance clean energy policies and investments that will more rapidly move us from an over-reliance on fossil fuels to a clean energy economy.”
“We must be mindful of the effects of fossil fuel emissions and science that articulates its harmful impact on the environment,” Manning added. “However, in doing so, we cannot lose sight of other key national priorities.” Specifically, Bustos wants to avoid “short-term harm on workers and our national defense.”
Schilling did not respond to requests for this story. He told the Quad-City Times in October 2010 that “I believe climate change is real, but the scientific data is inconclusive at this point as how grave the threat is, or whether it is caused by humans or is a natural phenomenon.”
The lack of political discussion on climate change does not mean that the issue is less urgent than climate scientists previously feared. A report released last week, commissioned by 20 governments, found that 400,000 people around the world die each year from the planet’s warming. The report warns that this figure could climb to 700,000 annual climate-related fatalities by 2030.
Election 2012 also comes amid reports that accelerated melting of the polar ice caps and summer heat waves in the U.S. are also linked to climate change.