Climate change takes back seat on campaign trail

Jobs, economy main focus for Obama, Romney

President Obama may have to tone down anticoal rhetoric for risk of alienating important blocs of voters.
Getty Images/File
President Obama may have to tone down anticoal rhetoric for risk of alienating important blocs of voters.

WASHINGTON — It’s been a summer of discontent, with much of the country broiling under a heat wave like few before. Out West, parched wildlands burn. In the Midwest, farmers are sweating out another year of drought and wilted crops.

Consumers are feeling it, too, as they fume over rising food prices and muse about what’s behind the scorching temperatures. Many scientists and environmentalists, and some politicians, are sure of what’s at least partly to blame: climate change.

But global warming is hardly causing a stir in presidential politics, as both President Obama and Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, fixate on jobs and the economy.


“Given the potential impact on the US economy and national security, it’s rather startling how little attention the issue has received thus far,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House official who dealt extensively with climate change.

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“Already this summer we’re having widespread drought. We’ve had record heat early in the summer. We’re having impacts on food prices,” Bledsoe said. “This is a harbinger of the impacts that climate scientists have been warning about for years.”

Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California who heads the Committee on Environment and Public Works, is convening a panel Wednesday to talk about the latest science on global warming, a move meant to stoke discussion on the topic not only in Congress but perhaps on the campaign trail.

The reticence about climate change on the presidential stump is partly based on political calculations, according to analysts, who say both campaigns carry baggage on the issue and would rather avoid a topic that could offend important blocs of voters.

Romney’s detractors are likely to paint him as a flip-flopper, since he has backed away from earlier comments acknowledging climate change and the human role in it. Obama, meanwhile, may have to tone down anticoal rhetoric for risk of alienating important blocs of voters, particularly in such industrial states as Ohio and Pennsylvania, where coal continues to power industries.


A poll released by Yale in April showed a large majority of Americans hold global warming at least partly to blame for the extreme weather, including unseasonably warm temperatures this past winter, droughts in Texas and Oklahoma, and last year’s record summer temperatures — which are being rivaled in some regions by extended streaks of scorching weather this summer.

But it’s still a challenging topic to talk about, according to Michael Greenstone, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an adviser to the Obama administration during its first year. “The country has had a hard time accepting the science of climate change, and I think that makes it challenging to talk about politically.”

That’s not to say that Obama and Romney have kept completely quiet on the issue.

At a Monday night fund-raiser in New York, Obama spoke about reducing dependency on foreign oil, which he said could remove “some carbon out of the atmosphere at the same time, and create hundreds of thousands of jobs all across the country.”

“By advocating for the growth of renewable energy, President Obama has continually called for action that will address the sources of climate change,” said Michael Czin, an Obama campaign spokesman.


The Romney forces say the president could face tough challenges in coal-burning states, particularly in Ohio, where analysts believe the contest may be decided by just a sliver of voters.

Political analysts say both campaigns carry baggage on the issue and would rather avoid the topic.

“His position is to destroy the coal industry. The effects won’t be just on the coal industry, but on the entire manufacturing industry. He doesn’t want to talk about it, but that’s his policy,” Oren Cass, domestic policy director for the Romney campaign, said about Obama.

“We certainly want a science-based discussion; but science is one input to the policy. Regardless of what science tells you about global warming, it doesn’t tell you that cap-and-trade is the solution.”

In the end, environmental and energy policies point back to the economy and the livelihoods of voters, whether it’s about natural gas, coal, or global warming, said John Russo, a professor of labor studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

“Who wants to talk about it? I don’t know if anybody wants to make a big deal about it,” said Russo, who faults both candidates for not having a “substantive discussion about energy, foreign policy, environmental policy, and economic policy.”

Thus far, much of the debate has been dominated by controversies over the Keystone pipeline, which Republicans hail as a jobs producer and Democrats call a potential environmental hazard and boon to big oil; and Solyndra, the failed solar energy company that the Romney campaign says epitomizes the failed energy policies of the Obama administration.

The ideological divides add to the challenges of addressing climate change, said Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina who now serves as director of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative recently launched by George Mason University.

“It’s an important issue, and it’s an incredible danger we face,” said Inglis, who was one of the few Republicans in Congress to acknowledge global warming. “I would wish it were a major topic in the campaign. But unfortunately, the Great Recession has us focused on the immediate need of this month’s mortgage, or this month’s paycheck.”

Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at bobby.calvan@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @GlobeCalvan.