This story is part of a two-part series about the presidential candidates’ climate policies. Click here for the story about Mitt Romney.
Both presidential candidates have all but ignored climate change during this election season. Mitt Romney would not make it a priority if he were president.
President Obama, in contrast, is pushing clean energy. But he usually avoids talking about that policy as a means to address global warming — which scientists view as one of the most serious long-term issues facing the planet. That’s a political calculation that doesn’t please some in the environmental movement.
“We have a president who ran in 2008 on trying to solve global warming, and he hasn’t mentioned it at all on the campaign trail,” says Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth Action.
Pica has kind things to say about Obama’s policy to make cars more energy-efficient, his renewable energy push and other actions that will slow the nation’s carbon emissions. But it’s not enough to make a serious dent in global warming. Pica says climate should be a top issue in this presidential campaign, not stuck near the bottom of the list, where it is now.
“The president has a bully pulpit, so he could make it a top 10 issue if he chose to do so,” Pica says. “You can lead by following the polls, which means you’re leading from behind. Or you can take an issue, as cataclysmic as a climate crisis or climate disruption will be, and you can lead the American people to solutions.”
That may be noble public policy, but Frank Maisano at the energy lobbying firm Bracewell and Giuliani says it’s not good politics. This election is largely about jobs and the economy, and introducing climate change isn’t engaging voters on the issues they care about.
“The big flaw in the environmentalists’ pushing for climate, climate, climate is they don’t understand the policy disconnect with many of the political challenges that we face,” Maisano says. “They just aren’t realistic with what is the art of the possible.”
Tackling climate ultimately means making major changes in the fossil fuels-driven economy. That’s not a conversation you necessarily want to start while the economy is weak. People are simply concerned about getting or keeping a job, and how much they pay for gasoline and electricity.
Paul Bledsoe, who dealt with climate policy in the Clinton White House, says the Obama campaign has a whole new perspective on the issue compared with four years ago.
“After talking about it a lot in 2008, as [Republican challenger] John McCain did, I think they’ve decided that the economy is such a paramount issue that it’s better to talk about the economic side of clean energy rather than the climate change side,” Bledsoe says.
And indeed, we have heard a lot from the president about building a renewable energy industry in this country. Put in simple terms, he talks about clean energy, more jobs. But he has not been connecting the dots to global warming. Bledsoe says the issue became a bit of a loser during the past four years.
“Part of the president’s reluctance to talk about climate change stems from the political mishandling of the issue in the first two years of his presidency,” Bledsoe says. “The White House made a decision to stick with a plan they came up with before the great economic recession, and it didn’t go down well in Congress. A lot of people believe they should have trimmed their sails. And so they feel they’ve been burned politically.”
Cap-and-trade policies to address climate change by putting a price on carbon became a lightning rod for the Tea Party movement and proved costly for some politicians in the 2010 election.
And President Obama has the environmental vote, whether he talks about climate change or not. So that’s little incentive to raise the topic. But Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, says it could help the president attract some undecided voters, according to recent polling data.
“Undecideds are much more like Obama voters when it comes to their belief in climate change, the causes of climate change, their desire for action by the president and Congress,” Leiserowitz says. “They’re almost identical to ‘likely’ Obama voters.”
And if those undecided voters are feeling put off by the relentless conversation about jobs, the economy, health care and the other top-tier issues, Leiserowitz says, they might just respond with a pitch on climate change. But with the days ticking down to the election, there seems to be little inclination to introduce this potentially divisive issue into the conversation.