Throughout the U.S. presidential campaign, the major party candidates’ offered voters deafening silence on the environment and climate change. On the other hand, the voice of the fossil fuel industry filled the void, with their messages pummeling Americans for months leading up to election-day.
According to the New York Times, from January to early September 2012, more than $153 million was spent on TV ads promoting coal, oil and gas drilling, or criticizing clean energy. In the week leading up to the election, sometimes several times an hour, America’s Power told viewers: “families struggle, our economy flat lines…heavy-handed EPA regulations have taken us down a reckless path…use your vote to send leaders to Washington that will tell the EPA enough is enough”. Behind that message was a partnership of industries involved in producing coal-fired power. Several times a day, the American Petroleum Institute called on Americans to “Vote4Energy” – for “a bright future” that’s “good for everyone” – by supporting an expansion of the nation’s energy sources, starting with oil and natural gas. Nothing is more important than getting people back to work, these ads told us. This was a sharp contrast to 2008, when green ads – including from the likes of Chevron, and the Republican Party itself – outnumbered fossil fuel ads.
This year, the old environment-economy dichotomy returned with a vengeance. The candidates fell over each other to talk about ways to create jobs, while again and again failed to mention the environment. As though it simply didn’t exist. Even as the super-storm Sandy destroyed swathes of the north-eastern U.S., the candidates – and most mainstream media – stayed silent on climate change. It was the endorsement of Obama by New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, as the better candidate to tackle global climate change that finally linked the severity of the storm to climate change. Bloomberg’s endorsement connected the issue to the candidates and, for the first time in the entire election season, climate change was more than a throw-away line.
Without the prospect of aggravating the financiers eager to oust him, or trying to win votes from states where coal or oil underpins the economy, we can hope that the post-election President will say more on climate change. When Obama mentioned the threat of a warming planet in his acceptance speech on Tuesday, applause broke out from an audience starved of an acknowledgement of the issue. We can hope that an American public increasingly convinced of the threat of human-induced climate change will give him further impetus to act. In September, pre-hurricane Sandy, almost 60% of Americans said they were worried about climate change – the highest level in four years. We can also hope that an upcoming flurry of films and TV shows on climate and the environment may help these issues stay top of mind for Americans.
However, the painfully slow economic recovery and looming fiscal cliff means there’s unlikely to be a change in the way climate change and the environment is talked about. The context, and the Congress, is essentially the same as they have been for months. The frames American leaders use to discuss climate change will likely continue to be the economy and efficiency, and infrastructure investment and public safety. This is the language that resonates with a population struggling with unemployment, increasing costs of living, and depressed wages. While there may be some chance in this term for a bold national policy, the far more likely scenario is of piecemeal measures that favor climate adaptation and mitigation at a local, sectoral or regional scale. National action is likely to be less direct, and visible; likely on the agenda will be energy efficiency standards, tax credits for renewable energy producers, and greater regulation of fracking. The ambition on climate change that many hoped for entering President Obama’s first term may not be realized in this second term. However, the outcome of Tuesday’s presidential and Senate elections suggest there is much to be hopeful about, including an increased Democratic Senate majority and reaffirmed Obama presidency premised on his ability to lead us ‘forward’ for four more years. Let’s hope the talk and the action on climate moves in the same direction.
Helen Morrow is a climate change and energy policy advisor and communicator, now with Delta Institute in Chicago, U.S.A. and has previously worked for the Grattan Institute and the Garnaut Climate Change Review.