Keeping Climate Change Out of the Presidential Campaign

The complete absence of climate change from the first two presidential debates was the best thing that could have happened to the cause.

Climate activists are aghast that climate change did not make it into either of the first two presidential debates. Prior to the first debate, environmental organizations reportedly delivered a petition to moderator Jim Lehrer to bring climate change up for discussion. They were ignored. For supporters, being ignored was probably the best thing that could have happened in support of the politics of climate change.

Both the President and Mr. Romney realize that discussing climate change directly is not something that will enhance their chances of success. Voters cannot empathize with such abstract concepts and will tend to relegate them to a low position in their list of priorities—particularly during a time of economic difficulty. Recent research clearly shows that, if we are to win people over to supporting the policy initiatives that will help mitigate climate change: “Communication should focus on how mitigation efforts can promote a better society, rather than focusing on the reality of climate change and averting its risks.” Such peer-reviewed research flies in the face of—and is more credible than—the many superficial polls conducted by activist organisations that, predictably, claim that voters care deeply about their specific cause.

It seems likely that returning President Obama to the White House would be the more favourable outcome for the cause of climate change. The question that activists should be focusing on is how best to achieve that outcome, not whether climate change as a subject makes it into the campaign discussion. The Obama campaign understands what voters care about better than climate activists. The campaign talks about American energy independence; a balanced energy policy; the creation of jobs, including “clean energy jobs”; and “clean air and water.” These are the issues that resonate and that a broad swathe of the population can support. Particularly, these are the issues that will likely sway the middle-of-the-road floating voter. Once again, this builds on a body of evidence that shows that tangible messages about practical actions are much more likely to resonate with voters than the discussion of abstract apocalyptic scenarios.

The first debate also showed the President’s vulnerability in any climate discussion. Mr. Romney quickly honed in on $90 billion of wasted taxpayers money that went to failed companies such as Solyndra. “I like green energy too,” he claimed, but he argued against the government throwing away money away on “green” companies that will fail. This will resonate with many Americans. In the second debate, the term "green energy" gave way to "clean energy" and "renewables"—better terms that have more appeal to the voting public. In his book The Political Brain, author Drew Westen castigates in frustration the Democratic Party’s habit of ignoring decades of psychology research  in crafting political campaigns. This time it seems that, while the Obama campaign has got it right, it is climate activists who are ignoring the science of human behaviour. This is ironic, given that much of the activists’ frustration arises from their perception of failure to accept scientific consensus.

The reality is that, politically, the climate debate has moved on and, it seems, left many activists behind, fighting yesterday’s war. The debate is no longer about whether climate change is happening or not, nor whether it is human influenced or not. These are yesterday’s questions. Today’s questions are about energy and social policy in a difficult economic climate. How do we incorporate clean energy into our energy policy? At what economic and social costs? What is the role of government compared to the role of the private sector? What is the role of parallel technologies such as genetically modified crops in drought stricken areas? These are the questions that are relevant, in political terms, to the climate change debate. Whether we should explore new technologies such as solar and wind is no longer a question. Both candidates like clean energy. How and at what pace are today’s questions. These questions are not answered or helped by shrill campaigns that persist with the mantra “Climate change is real and the end is nigh.”

In this presidential campaign, those who care about climate change probably believe that re-electing President Obama may be better for their cause. However, they have to distinguish between helping get the President re-elected and winning headlines about climate change. The two may be in direct conflict. Will the environmental lobby once again let blind ideology get in the way of effectiveness? Are activists able to move on from yesterday’s questions and from the rebellious tactics that were appropriate decades ago and live the reality of today’s political climate? Will activists by their actions help or harm the campaign of the candidate that they are supporting? Time will tell.

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  • This piece is wrong-headed on multiple levels.

    Here is how I paraphrase key points:

    1.  Shhhh ... let’s not talk about what legitimately could be called the most serious issue on the planet in the campaign for the most important political position on the planet ... wouldn’t want to have serious issues being discussed seriously.

    2.  Shut up you ignorant idiots because the Obama campaign staff know better without question everything.

    3.  That Mitt Romney can lie, heavily, on clean energy program funding and the President didn’t stand up to Romney’s falsehoods proves that clean energy is a losing issue to discuss.

    4. Those idiotic climate activists think everything should be about “climate science” and don’t have any messaging/otherwise connection to the value of solutions (clean energy and otherwise).

    5. Etc ...

    Zammit-Lucia seems utterly divorced in his thinking from the polling and discussion of climate issues in the United States.

    “The debate is no longer about whether climate change is happening or not, nor whether it is human influenced or not.”  What planet are we living on? Of course, these should not be debated issues in a sane world but we live in a political environment with Fox News and other climate disinformation channels fostering serious questioning of these very questions among sizable portions of the public (including a large share of the Republican base).  I agree with Zammit-Lucia that the rest of those questions are where the debate and discussion should be, but one can’t not talk about the science and leap to those discussions in the American political scene.

    And, the linked “peer reviewed” study? “Promoting pro-environmental action in climate change deniers”. The attacked, supposedly shallow, polling by “activist” organizations didn’t look at how to convince “deniers” but to what is a winning set of political environments in 2012 America.  This work—a variety of polls, done by a variety of organizations, with a variety of question strategies—clearly is showing that activist Democrats are motivated to ‘get out the vote and get out and vote’ with serious discussion of climate issues (and how mitigation action will payoff); that true independents align with Democratic voters when it comes to these issues and respond positively; and that global warming denier voters already supporting Romney and other Republicans aren’t any more motivated to vote against Obama than they already are. 

    E.g., discussing climate change seriously (including value streams from mitigation) is a path that would enhance President Obama’s chance of being reelected ...

  • BY Joe Zammit-Lucia

    ON October 19, 2012 07:41 AM

    @ASiegel Thank you for your comments. I think you raise valid issues. The point I am trying to make is a narrow one. Who does the climate lobby feel would be best winning this election and how does one best help that happen. The broader issues are, maybe, germane but the question is whether they belong in this debate at this particular time when all that matters here is getting the better candidate elected not the much longer-term questions that you rightly raise in your comment.

    You suggest: “discussing climate change seriously (including value streams from mitigation) is a path that would enhance President Obama’s chance of being reelected ...”. I humbly disagree. And so, it seems, do the Obama campaign strategists. In my opinion this is an activist perspective not an electoral campaign perspective.

  • BY David Lawrence Hawthorne

    ON October 20, 2012 05:07 PM

    I think the author’s right! Every issue brought into the debates thus far has been utterly debased by competing lobbyist and partisans between rounds. (Frankly, I find scantily clad women carrying around large number between boxing rounds just as distracting and demeaning).

    I want intelligent, informed people to step up to the issues with an open mind, not an open mouth. If we have someone to blame for the policy blindness, it’s our media industries who are too busy pandering to advertisers and brain dead consumers.

    As a regular participant in thoughtful discourse among relatively well informed counterparts in various communities of interests, I can’t agree that all digital media fora are a waste of time (though I participate in them too.) Maybe there’s not that big a difference: my interest and exposure to the “waste-of-time” set decays quickly. Ironically, my time spent pursuing new understanding and exploring new lines of inquiry and action has been enormously rewarding.

  • This leads to an ‘all of the above’ energy plan where coal and other fossil fuels can still rule. We make one step forward with vehicle regulations, and two steps back with next new thing in carbon spewing economic development.  We can charge boldly, head first, into a bright new world where natural gas is booming, yet where we have little understanding as to the associated greenhouse gas emissions inherent in such a choice. A potential climate ‘bridge to nowhere’. We ask nothing of ourselves, of our neighbours, of society. We abandon any hope of an economy-wide price on carbon. We think nothing of the coming inequities to be exacerbated by climate change. It’s difficult to see how this approach ‘wins’. It seems like, at it’s core, it is ‘climate policy by stealth’, and I think Republicans will destroy it. You’ll have both candidates bending over backwards to show who supports fossil fuels more (i.e. the second presidential debate). Democrats, too, are vulnerable to vested power interests, and in no time any policy that has climate implications will be whisked away in a barely perceptible haze of ‘business-as-usual’.

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