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Demonstrators bring attention to climate change prior to the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver on October 3, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The first of four debates for the 2012 Election, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential, is moderated by PBS's Jim Lehrer and focuses on domestic issues: the economy, health care, and the role of government.
Climate change peaked as a campaign issue around the August political conventions. In Charlotte, President Obama acknowledged its existence.
“Yes, my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet, because climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They're a threat to our children's future.”
In Tampa, Governor Romney brought up climate science too…so that he could mock his opponent and dismiss the issue.
“President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans,” he began, pausing to mug for a long laugh,”…and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.”
Two thirds of American voters say climate change is an important problem. But we have heard little about what Barack Obama or Mitt Romney would do about it.
After the conventions, hundreds of thousands of activists signed petitions pleading with the candidates to seriously discuss climate change. That hasn’t happened. (Climatesilence.org continues to gather names, and support.)
Obama and Romney agree with most scientists that climate change exists, and that human activity contributes to it. But they also seem to think that saying more than that is a bad idea.
And it wasn’t just the campaigns that stayed away from it. After the second presidential debate, its moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, suggested that the issue is second-tier.
“Climate change, I had that question for all of you climate change people. We just, we knew that the economy was still the main thing,” Crowley said to her fellow CNN reporters, including Dana Bash.
Of course, the economy was a big deal four years ago, too, but the Obama and McCain campaigns did talk about climate change then.
Joe Romm is the editor of the influential blog Climate Progress, and the author of a new book about the persuasive power of language. He says over the past four years, the rise of the Tea Party and climate denial among many Republicans have pushed climate politics to the margins.
“You have this remarkable ratcheting up,” Romm says, “of what I call the disinformation campaign from conservative media outlets and fossil fuel companies attacking anybody that does talk about climate science and creating a counterproductive environment for intelligent discussions of this crucial issue.”
So Mitt Romney risks angering his base if he talks about climate change, and President Obama may not want to stir that hornet’s nest.
California Republican strategist Jonathan Wilcox says the tough economy is an added complication. For example, he says it would be impossible for the president to talk about steps he might want the country to take to address climate change.
“You want to say I’m for higher gas prices, I’m for smaller cars, and I’m for higher fuel bills so we can get people to use less,” Wilcox says. “That is not a mainstream position. If you prevail you’re going to do it only in a partisan political environment.”
California-based Democratic political consultant Darry Sragow also says that climate change is a losing issue for both candidates. He believes the only way to talk about climate policies like cutting carbon emissions is to sidle up to the subject.
“The way to start the conversation is we need to end our dependence on oil especially foreign oil Because that gets the heads nodding yes.”
For a few minutes in the second debate, it seemed as if that might be happening, when the candidates were asked about gas prices and started talking about energy independence.
Mitt Romney called for “more drilling, more permits and licenses,” and referenced the proposed KeystoneXL pipeline project, saying, “We're going to bring that pipeline in from Canada. How in the world the president said no to that pipeline, I will never know.”
A few minutes later, Barack Obama argued that he has done more than Romney credits him for, when it comes to exploiting domestic fossil fuels. “We've opened up public lands,” the President said. “We're actually drilling more on public lands than in the previous administration.”
Environmentalists are unhappy that the president has chosen to emphasize his similarities with Romney on domestic oil and gas exploration. They want him to spend more time touting his support for such things as tailpipe emissions regulations and clean energy investments.
Brad Johnson, a spokesman and campaigner for ClimateSilence.org, says the broader public needs to demand discussion of the issue.
“This is a problem that confronts all of us. And it is all of our responsibility to understand and take responsibility for this silence. Once the American public makes a determination that something’s important, politicians follow.”
Some experts think it’s not so bad that the campaigns have pretty much ignored climate change. They say that good policymaking is hard in such a polarized environment. That’s the view of Dino Falaschetti, the executive director and an economist at Montana-based Property and Environment Research Center, a think tank that promotes a free-market approach to environment issues.
“You’d have to have the political support to implement the policy so you’d have to find the sweet spot between what is good economics and what is good politics,” Falaschetti says. “And that is frequently a very difficult sweet spot to find.”
So political polarization has kept climate change largely out of the presidential campaign. And given the huge chasm between Democrats and Republicans on the issue, it’s far from clear that climate will get much attention after the election, regardless of who wins on November sixth.