Obama Being Pressed to Respond on Climate

Coral Davenport
September 5, 2012

A large group of Democratic donors is threatening to withhold money from President Obama’s reelection campaign unless he breaks his silence on climate change and responds directly to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s denigration of the issue at the Republican National Convention last week.

The donors want Obama to reject the advice of his campaign operatives and affirm his support for addressing climate change in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention on Thursday night, said Betsy Taylor, a Democratic strategist and president of Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions.

“We’ve been working on behalf of a network of about 100 political donors who maxed out to the Obama campaign in 2008, and only about 25 percent have maxed out this election cycle,” Taylor said. “The whole focus has been on elevating the climate issue. We do feel that it’s imperative that the president respond to Mitt Romney’s mocking and that he do so forcefully with a clear statement.”

In his acceptance speech at the Republican convention last week, Romney drew cheers from the delegates when he ridiculed Obama’s stance on climate change. “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet,” Romney said. “My promise is to help you and your family.”

Obama has been largely mum on the issue of climate change in 2012 after promising to aggressively tackle the problem in his 2008 campaign. This year, in an election focused on the economy, Republicans have attacked any efforts to address climate change as “job-killing regulations” and the White House has been reluctant to respond, despite recent polls showing most voters support action on climate change.

Taylor criticized the Obama campaign’s strategy on the issue. “I think the president is getting very bad counsel,” she said. “The people surrounding the president are giving him old advice. It’s not taking into account the new polling that shows people are considering a drought worse than anything we’ve seen in 50 years, wildfires raging through the Midwest—this isn’t speculative, this is science.

“His failure to talk about climate change—the silence is staggering in the wake of this summer’s extreme weather,” Taylor said. “If he fails to stand up in the face of the mocking of the Republican convention, he will not get the kind of support he needs from independents, young people, and his donors.”

A poll conducted in 10 swing states last month by Yale University found that 55 percent of voters will consider candidates’ views on global warming when deciding how to vote, and that 88 percent support U.S. action on climate change even if it has economic costs.

The Yale survey also found that 84 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of independent voters, and 67 percent of Republicans support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. The poll concluded that being “pro-climate” wins votes among Democrats and independents, and has little negative impact with Republican voters.

Other polls this year also have found that most Americans believe global temperatures are rising and weather patterns have become more unstable in recent years. An April Gallup poll found majority support for stricter pollution standards, government clean-energy efforts, and controls on greenhouse-gas emissions.

“Based on what I’ve seen of the polls, and of the campaigns, I’m perplexed,” said Edward Maibach, a co-author of the Yale study. “Climate change does not appear to be the radioactive issue that politicians often believe it is. It’s very much in the president’s interest to take a pro-climate stance, because it will win him votes.... For Republicans, that stance will alienate some in their own party, but they’ll win as many independent voters, so it’s a wash.”

Maibach said that Romney’s remarks on climate change may come back to haunt him. “Mocking climate change or taking an anti-climate stance plays to the extreme conservative base,” he said. “If the point is to rally the base, then belittling the notion that the climate is changing is effective. But it has a cost. It will likely lose you votes that you need to get elected from independents in the middle.”

Both campaigns and their surrogates declined to answer questions about the polls on climate change. But Obama’s campaign advisers said the script of his Thursday speech remains a work in progress, and it’s an open question as to whether climate change will be mentioned.

There are signs that Obama is starting to elevate the issue of climate change. In three speeches last week, he highlighted his administration’s new fuel-economy standards, which require automakers to build cars with an average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. “That will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by a level roughly equivalent to a year’s worth of emissions from all the cars in the world,” he told audiences in Iowa, Colorado, and Virginia—each time to applause.

Strategists from both parties say that the reason the GOP has veered so hard to the right on energy and climate issues is the influx of new spending by outside groups and super PACs, many of which have ties to fossil-fuel companies that oppose climate regulations. One of the most influential groups is Americans for Prosperity, backed by energy conglomerate Koch Industries.

The president of Americans for Prosperity, Tim Phillips, spoke with National Journal by phone from a bus in North Carolina, where the group is on a tour highlighting “Obama’s Failing Agenda.”

“There’s no question” that Romney’s remarks will resonate positively with voters, Phillips said. “It’s no wonder the president is silent on this. They know what we know. It’s not something the American public supports.”

It’s expected that both candidates will have to answer questions on climate change during the presidential debates, the first of which is scheduled for Oct. 3 in Denver. Some scientists say that Colorado, which has been hit by swarms of pine beetles and devastating wildfires this summer, has seen one of the earliest and most visible impacts of climate change in the U.S.

“The issue could be extra-salient in Colorado and at the Denver debate, where related issues have been hot (pun intended),” wrote Colorado-based Republican strategist Mark McKinnon in an e-mail to National Journal.