Conventions Revive Climate-Change Debate

Coral Davenport
September 6, 2012

After being left out in the cold all year, global warming is making a reappearance on the campaign trail.

President Obama, who campaigned aggressively in 2008 on the promise of fighting climate change, has barely mentioned the subject during this campaign, despite a summer of record heat and drought and news reports linking such extreme weather events to increases in greenhouse gases.

But on Thursday night, under the spotlight at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, just two months from the general election, Obama made his most high-profile mention of the controversial issue this year.

“And yes, my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet—because climate change is not a hoax,” Obama said. “More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They’re a threat to our children’s future. And in this election, you can do something about it,” he said, to a sustained ovation.

Until now, Obama’s advisers calculated that in a campaign centered on the economy, a pledge to save the environment by cutting carbon pollution would fall flat—and create a target for Republican attacks. But Thursday’s remarks could signal a new willingness to address a crucial public-policy issue which both campaigns have until now avoided.

Credit Republican nominee Mitt Romney with putting the spotlight back on the issue, when, during his speech last week, he essentially mocked Obama’s climate agenda. “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet,” he said in his acceptance speech for the party’s presidential nomination, drawing a laugh from delegates at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. “My promise is to help you and your family.”

The jab cried out for a response. Republican advisers said that Romney was not mocking climate change per se, but rather Obama’s lofty rhetoric in a 2008 speech, when he said, “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” But the remark was widely interpreted as a reinforcement of the extreme right-wing view, espoused by Republicans like Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, that climate science is hoax.

Despite conventional campaign wisdom that talking about climate change during economically tough times is a losing issue, some experts say that Romney’s climate jab may have hurt him, while creating a new opening for Obama to win over independent voters. While questioning climate change may have helped Romney win in primaries, polls show that the majority of general-election voters accept climate science.  

An August poll from Yale University found that 55 percent of voters say they will consider candidates’ views on global warming when deciding how to vote, and that 88 percent support U.S. action to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs. The authors of the poll presented their findings to the White House this spring, noting that it ran counter to conventional campaign wisdom.   

Anthony Leiserowitz, coauthor of the Yale poll, said of Romney’s convention jab, “He was throwing red meat to the base. It may have been a laugh line, but those who aren’t part of his conservative base may have been shocked that he would mock this. He will be forced to pay for it in some fundamental way with moderates and independents.”

Meanwhile, Obama has faced a growing urgency from his own base to take a stand on climate. All week in Charlotte, youthful protestors in the streets and campaign donors in backrooms have ratcheted up the pressure on Obama to address the issue.  

Even if Obama wins a second term, however, it will be difficult for him to advance a climate-change bill. He’ll face either a divided or heavily Republican Congress, in which climate-change legislation stands little chance of advancing. Instead, he’s likely to continue to use the executive authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to roll out new climate regulations, such as rules requiring that coal-fired power plants slash their carbon emissions—a deeply unpopular tactic.

“If you take a step back and look at what this administration’s done to invest in clean energy and double down on energy efficiency initiatives, we’ve made it clear that we are going to look strategically at how we use our existing authorities,” Heather Zichal, Obama’s deputy energy and climate-change adviser, told reporters on Thursday. “We will continue to focus on that in next administration, and obviously the big issue will remain engagement with Congress.”