Back when I was a staff writer at Time magazine, I dreaded presidential-election season. The reason: every time a major primary rolled around, to say nothing of the general election, some editor would get it into his or her head that we should find ‘the science angle’ or ‘the environment angle’. What are the candidates’ positions on the important science issues of the day?
It made my brain hurt, because their official positions, especially on environmental issues, often had nothing to do with what they actually ended up doing in office – either because those positions were just window dressing to get votes, or because of the political realities they faced once they were in office. Case in point: Al Gore spent eight years as Vice President, but Bill Clinton never bothered to bring the greenhouse-gas-limiting Kyoto Protocol to the Senate for ratification, because it was doomed to defeat.
So now we’ve just gone through Super Tuesday for the GOP, with Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum and even Newt Gingrich claiming victory one way or another, and even though I’m now at Climate Central, my editor wants to know . . . what’s the climate angle? Geoff, you’re a good guy and a fine editor, but please! There is no climate angle!
Here’s why: Romney used to be for climate change (or the argument that humans are partly behind it, anyway) before he was against it. Santorum never bought that ‘climate-change hoax’ in the first place. Gingrich really has no idea why he appeared in an ad with Nancy Pelosi that warned of the dangers of climate change, but he’s come to his senses now. And Ron Paul said this on Fox News in 2009 “You know, the greatest hoax I think that has been around in many, many years if not hundreds of years has been this hoax on the environment and global warming. You notice they don’t call it global warming anymore. It’s weather control.”
Now you might argue that Mitt and Newt changed their positions because the facts changed, not because they needed to appeal to the Republican base. Of course, the facts about human-caused global warming haven’t changed at all – but that’s beside the point. The point is that whichever of these four gentlemen wins the nomination – and even with a good showing by Gingrich or Santorum, the people who know politics say Romney is still the odds-on favorite – there’s not a chance in the world that any of them will make any pre-election promises to do anything meaningful about the climate problem.
As of today, the Democrats are optimistic about the President’s chances of re-election, so maybe it won’t matter for the climate who his opponent is (although at this point, eight months out from the election, it would be foolish to take any bets). And President Obama has talked seriously about the dangers of climate change in the past. “Climate change poses a threat to our way of life – in fact, we’re already beginning to see its profound and costly impact,” he said in a speech in 2010. He appointed Jane Lubchenco and John Holdren – two eminent scientists who were also founding board members of Climate Central – to high positions in his administration.
But environmentalists have blasted him again and again on his failure to take bold action against the problem – or even to utter the words ‘climate change’ more than once in this year’s State of the Union address. Much of it has to do, as it did in the Clinton-Gore administration, with a hostile Congress that wouldn’t allow any serious legislation to pass anyway. If Mitt Romney becomes president, some insiders believe he may dial back his severe conservatism on climate change – but that won't make Congress any less hostile.
Still, as Kate Sheppard argued in Mother Jones recently, Obama may have to address the topic sooner or later. Indirectly, he already has, by rejecting (for now) the permit application to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline across the nation’s midsection, after environmental activists opposed it, partly on climate change grounds. And then there’s the pending decision by the EPA on carbon-emissions caps for power plants, based on a Supreme Court ruling giving it the authority to do so. It will be tough to say ‘no comment’ when that comes through.
That’s hardly the same thing as taking strong, decisive action, though – something that becomes more urgent the longer we wait to begin. Which means that come November there may still be no climate change angle, no matter who wins the election.
But I’ll probably still have to write about it.