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.