US election: Obama sidelines climate change

The Democratic convention came and went last week, with few surprises other than the seemingly limitless depths of the American political classes’ supply of stupid hats. With the confetti swept aside and the campaigns underway in earnest, it’s disheartening to realise how sidelined climate change is by both parties in this election – and how little Americans care about that.

As with many of the other issues on his ambitious 2008 agenda, Obama’s uneven record on the environment has come as a disappointment to his more hopeful supporters. Yes, the administration announced new fuel-efficiency standards just in time for the conventions. It also suffered the defeat of its cap and trade bill in the Senate and the collapse of Solyndra, a much-touted solar panel company that failed despite more than US$500 million in government loans. These failures resulted in a hasty retreat from the aggressive, market-driven remaking of America’s carbon footprint that seemed so enticingly possible in 2008. Until Bill Clinton tossed off a mention of climate change in his barn-burner of a convention speech, no major figure at the event dared to broach the subject on stage in Charlotte. 

From the podium on Thursday night, Barack Obama responded to Mitt Romney’s global warming crack by affirming his support for carbon emission reduction. "More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke," Obama told a cheering crowd. "They are a threat to our children’s future." It is a sign of how banal and partisan the public discussion of climate change has become that a sitting president should feel the need to speak the line "climate change is not a hoax" – and that the crowd would reward it with the kind of applause reserved for bold statements. 

The brief shout-out to reality and the reminder that someone should do something about the climate were to some an optimistic confirmation that the environment was finally back in the campaign debate.

I’m not so sure. 

Romney and Obama are both intelligent, experienced politicians with shrewd campaign teams behind them. With eight weeks to go in an incredibly close race, it is difficult to imagine either of them devoting significant mileage to a subject of ambiguous political benefit – and it’s far from certain how much American voters care about climate change. 

In written responses to, a forum co-sponsored by the National Academies and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the candidates clarify their positions to the extent that both admit that the planet is getting warmer, but refrain from any national commitments to change that.

It’s unclear whether the American public shares their reticence to wade into those waters. 

A Yale poll taken in March and publicised in a report last month found that 55% of Americans would consider a candidate’s position on global warming when deciding how to vote. “Based on what I’ve seen of the polls, and of the campaigns, I’m perplexed,” co-author Edward Maibach told the National Journal. “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.”

Both studies found that talk of climate change plays far more favorably with Democrats and Independents than with Republicans. With the campaigns at nearly a dead heat, it remains to be seen which candidate will be more effective at reaching beyond their base to the undecided and independent voters who so often decide American elections.