WASHINGTON — As governor, Mitt Romney threatened one of Massachusetts’ dirtiest power plants to clean up or shut down, and he embarked upon a pioneering multistate pact to cut greenhouse gas emissions. He was hailed, at least initially, as an environmental champion. That was 2003.
By the time he accepted the Republican nomination for president in August, Romney had completed an about-face, reducing climate science — and President Obama’s efforts to fight global warming — to a punch line. Now, in the waning days of the campaign, Romney’s shift on what had been a backburner election issue could cost him some independent votes.
With the unprecedented path of destruction carved by Hurricane Sandy this week and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s subsequent endorsement of Obama, it is ironic that a man who once took the national lead on the issue could ultimately suffer at the ballot box by his change of heart.
“That Mitt Romney is gone. Talking to him about climate change would be like Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair,” said Congressman Edward Markey, a Malden Democrat who co-sponsored a 2009 cap-and-trade bill that passed in the House but failed in the Senate. “Mayor Bloomberg’s endorsement of the president has supercharged the climate change issue in the same way that climate change supercharged Sandy.”
In his op-ed Thursday endorsing Obama, Bloomberg emphasized the need for leadership in the White House to stem global warming. He praised Obama for setting higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and tightening emission standards for coal power plants. He also noted Romney’s history of confronting climate change as governor, but called him out for forsaking his position.
“He has reversed course, abandoning the very cap-and-trade program he once supported,” Bloomberg wrote. “This issue is too important. We need determined leadership at the national level to move the nation and the world forward. . . . I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics.”
Romney’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
In 2003, Romney raised the hopes of environmentalists after appointing Douglas Foy, former president of the Conservation Law Foundation and one of the state’s most aggressive environmental activists, to a new position overseeing environmental, transportation, and housing issues. The move rankled Romney allies in the business community.
Romney’s first major environmental decision as governor was to force the Salem Harbor Power Station, a mostly coal-burning plant, to adhere to strict new regulations that required installing pollution-reducing systems in short order — famously proclaiming, “That plant kills people.” The mayor lambasted Romney for killing jobs.
For three years, the Romney administration pursued an aggressive climate strategy, Foy said, including launching a two-year negotiation with eight other Northeastern states to limit greenhouse gas emissions of power plants. In the end, however, Romney pulled the plug, citing his concerns over the potential for the cost of energy to skyrocket. Many in the state regarded his decision as calculated, his sights set on the 2008 election.
“About 2½ years into his administration, Romney got Potomac fever and started backtracking on all his very progressive environmental policies,” said Jack Clarke, public policy director at Massachusetts Audubon and member of Romney’s housing and ocean management task forces. “That led me to believe his Massachusetts energy and environmental policies were not part of any core conviction.”
Romney wrote in his 2010 book “No Apology” that he believed human beings contribute to global warming and said as much during his first town hall in New Hampshire last June. But after taking a hit from conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who called global warming a hoax and said Romney could kiss the Republican nomination goodbye, Romney later said he was uncertain how much human beings contributed.
He now calls the Environmental Protection Agency a tool of the president “to crush the private enterprise system” and accuses it of impeding economic growth. During the Republican National Convention, Romney mocked Obama’s pledge to confront global warming, quipping “President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.”
As far as environmentalists are concerned, slowing global warming also helps families. “What we have been reminded of by Hurricane Sandy is that you can’t do one without the other,” said Sierra Club president Michael Brune, a Jersey Shore native whose family and friends on the barrier islands have been stranded for days without water and power. “Romney doesn’t seem to have accepted that as the truth,” although he may have accepted that years ago, Brune said.
Environmentalists say it’s unfortunate that it took the hurricane to finally spur any campaign conversation on climate change, and they hope it will push the next president — whoever it may be — to promote an energy policy that curbs carbon emissions and invests in infrastructure resilient to devastating weather events.
“It’s been a real shame that in the debates, the two candidates seem to be wanting to outdo each other in how much drilling they have supported or would support,” said John Kassel, president of Conservation Law Foundation. “It’s been the elephant in the room for all Americans watching the campaign, and it seems to me that the candidates had been running away from that as fast as they could.”
Ian Bowles, a former environmental secretary of Governor Deval Patrick, said Bloomberg’s endorsement calls into question what environmental policies Romney would actually champion if elected as president. “It puts Governor Romney, rightly so, in an awkward and defensive posture, having been all over the woodlot on this issue and ultimately landing in a place of scorn.”