How Does Climate Change Factor into Decision 2012?

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Last election season, presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain agreed that climate change was a critical issue demanding urgent attention. Four years later, both candidates Obama and Mitt Romney barely discuss climate change. In fact, the words were never uttered during any of the three presidential debates.

Coral Davenport has been investigating what’s behind the change as the energy and environment correspondent for The National Journal. FRONTLINE spoke with her about the dramatic reversal she’s seen in Congress, and what political options are still on the table for those pushing for action on climate change.

In 2008, Obama campaigned pretty actively around the issue of climate change, proposing a cap-and-trade system that would put a ceiling on carbon dioxide emissions. What’s behind his quieter stance this election?

… In this campaign, the public perception has shifted so much. The Republican Party has shifted so far to the right that it has denied the science at all.

Another reason is the biggest issue in this campaign: the economy and jobs. Republicans have sold climate regulation as something that will hurt jobs, that it will probably increase the price of fossil fuels. So within the Obama campaign there’s a sense that [this is a losing battle].

[Obama] campaigned on this aggressive, detailed [cap-and-trade] plan, and they torpedoed it. It passed the House, just barely, and died in the Senate. And in the midterm elections, Republicans campaigned on cap-and-trade to the point where it became politically toxic. …

Part of Obama’s campaign promise was to pass cap-and-trade and use that money for the government to invest heavily in clean energy research; $150 billion was his campaign pledge.

What ended up happening was that in 2009, soon after Obama was elected, Congress passed the stimulus, with $50 billion … to invest in clean energy. The first big solar company to get funds was Solyndra, which later went bankrupt. And so this campaign promise of clean energy spending became politically toxic, it became something [used] to attack the idea of clean energy spending.

Democrats who had supported cap-and-trade retreated. It became fodder for campaign ads. It was portrayed as an energy tax that would hurt the economy. And then a lot of Democrats who supported cap-and-trade ending up losing their jobs [in the midterm elections].

So if cap-and-trade is no longer an option, what options does Obama have to address climate change if he’s re-elected?

He doesn’t have a lot of options. He cannot go back to cap-and-trade; that has no chance of passing.

One thing he could and probably will do is use the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to roll out new rules limiting coal-fired power plants that would require coal plants to rein in their pollution of C02 emissions.

It’s very unpopular. He’d probably not want to talk about this on the campaign trail because it could lead to the closure of coal plants in Ohio, Virginia, Colorado and Pennsylvania — all swing states. …

What are the chances Congress would take up the issue, and in what way?

Cap-and-trade is dead, but there is one policy that does have some bipartisan support. It’s kind of a long shot, but it’s a carbon tax. Economists say the most effective way to address the issue is to put a tax on greenhouse emissions. Republicans like the idea in exchange for an end to other taxes they don’t like.

In the next year, Congress is expected to take up a sweeping tax code reform to clean up the tax code and help the federal deficit. So a lot of old tax policies will be on the table.

So if they frame this as not an environmental issue, but as a good tax policy, as part of the mix, as good fiscal policy, that could be one opening in the next year or so that would be tremendous environmental policy that economists say would be the most effective.

What’s Mitt Romney’s campaign stance on climate change?

… Mitt Romney has had several positions on this issue. As a governor, he pushed climate change policies, pushed his government on the issue, promised to close coal plants. In his book, he said he supports this idea of this carbon tax, like McCain.

But when he started running in the Republican primary this year, where he was attacked by those on the right, like Perry, who denied climate change, [Romney] also went to the right and walked back his former views.  He’s indicated he’s not sure what causes climate change.  In this speech at Republican National Convention, he mocked the issue, telling the crowd: “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans. And to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.” That was a laugh line.

In Congress, who’s leading on climate change issues? Who isn’t doing anything?

In the Republican-majority House, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Fred Upton, is now supposed to undercut climate change, undercut EPA regulations, which is an awkward position for him because for most of his career, he was a real moderate on this issue. He used to say it was a problem. He sponsored legislation to mandate energy-efficient light bulbs with lower emissions.

Within the House, the other big leaders are Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, charged with leading investigations into the executive branch. He’s made this a big issue. [Congressman] Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, is known as one of the biggest skeptics. And in the Senate,  Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.). They used to be out in the cold. …

As for leaders on the left pushing for change, there’s Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and he was the leading sponsor of House cap-and-trade bill that passed, and which led to a lot of his Democratic colleagues losing their jobs [in the 2010 midterm elections]. He’s the stalwart environmentalist not backing down.

Among Republicans, is there anyone pushing to address climate change?

Outside of Congress, there are a lot of Republicans who are very concerned in the way their party talks about climate change. They’re afraid the Republicans will end up on the wrong side of history, and this view will come back and hurt them badly. So they’re outside the political process having conversations on how to push the issue.

The Energy and Enterprise Initiative is made up of Bob Inglis of South Carolina, who lost his job in part for support of climate change and is working with conservative economist Art Laffer, with the support of Romney adviser Greg Mankiw to push for this idea of the carbon tax.

There is also the Young Conservatives for Energy Reform, a Christian Coalition linked up with [Young Republicans], that fears that the party is morally on the wrong side of the issue.

So there’s a growing conversation of Republicans who aren’t in public office, who are worried, who want to tell Republicans that if they go back to a moderate place on this issue, we will still support them.

But a much more powerful voice is fossil fuel groups and SuperPACs. They haven’t had nearly as much of a voice as the SuperPACs, like Americans for Prosperity, or the coal groups, like the American Coalition for Clean Coal and Electricity, which are spending very heavily to influence the campaign and make sure Republican candidates don’t move on the issue.

Are there economic costs to not addressing the issue? What are the costs for American taxpayers?

The economic costs are adding up. One thing scientists say is that we’re already starting to see increased floods, and so there are increased insurance rates in areas where there are more floods, stronger hurricanes or increased drought.

We had record drought this year, which sent up food prices. So climate change is already starting to have an impact on bottom lines. Former Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, who lost his Republican primary, said that even if Republicans aren’t going to come to the table [on the issue of climate change], they better be prepared to pay for the results of it, the taxpayer damage. This is going to keep coming and driving up costs. …

How much do voters care about the issue?

It’s interesting because a couple of years ago we saw polls showing that fewer and fewer people were convinced by climate science or believed in climate change.

Now we have extreme droughts, record weather damage, on the taxpayer’s dime, and we’re starting see voters change. [A Pew study released last week] showed that in the last year, an increasing number of Americans say the earth has been getting warmer over the last few decades and that the rise in the earth’s temperature is mostly because of human activity.

This is an issue for independent voters who say that where a candidate stands on climate change change can influence their vote, and they want to see a candidate who will do something on climate change. So that’s a new dynamic that we’re starting in the hump stretch of this election season. Part of it has to do with the extreme weather of this summer, when we saw food prices go up.  Extreme drought is something that can be directly tied to climate change. Voters tend to respond to dynamics that are most directly affecting them. It’s fresh in voters’ minds.

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