Mr. Candidate, What Do You Plan to Do About Human Induced Climate Change?

Two thirds of registered voters agree that global climate change is real and humans are contributing to it, according to a national survey conducted in March of 2012. 55% said that they would consider a candidate’s views on climate change when deciding who to vote for. Particularly notable is that the same survey found that the majority of registered voters favored policies to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and increase our use of renewable energy sources. This result held across party lines, and was held strongly by swing voters, but you wouldn’t know any of that if you simply listened to the presidential candidates.

Obama and Romney on campaign trail.

With the 2012 election less than two months away, neither Barrack Obama nor Mitt Romney seems to be talking much about global warming. Compare that with the 2008 election. Both the Democratic and Republican nominees boldly addressed the issue back then. Obama was quoted at the time, saying, “As the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, America has the responsibility to lead.” John McCain was even more specific, saying, “The overwhelming evidence is that greenhouse gases are contributing to warming of our earth and we have an obligation to take action to fix it. Both candidates supported cap and trade legislation. In fact, in 2003, when Obama and McCain were in the Senate together, they cosponsored legislation to set firm carbon emission caps. That sort of bipartisan cooperation seems unbelievable to anyone accustomed to today’s bitter partisan warfare, but in 2008 the two parties both recognized the importance of the issue.

President Obama at Florida solar company.

Today, neither party is talking much about how the world’s climate is changing. As president, Obama’s environmental record is somewhat mixed. He put policies into place to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, increased fuel economy standards and urged the EPA to raise efficiency standards for household appliances. He also demanded that energy plants produce at least 15% of their energy from renewable sources, like solar and wind, by 2021, and pushed past Republican objections in Congress to authorize the EPA to measure and regulate carbon emissions. Still, many environmentalists have criticized his strong support for the oil and gas industries, and in particular his support for natural gas extracted using hydraulic fracking.

2009 global warming protest.

There is also concern that the steps Obama is advocating for are too little, too late. As Deborah Zabarenko of Reuters put it, “For a Democrat who won the White House with strong green credentials, Obama has kept his environmental policies well below the radar for much of his presidency.” One of the Obama campaign’s spokespeople, Tom Reynolds indicated that there are no immediate plans to change that during the current campaign, saying, “Clearly [climate change] is something that is important to the administration, but right now we are obviously going to be focusing on jobs and the economy and talking about what our contrast is.”

Governor. Romney, 2003.

Speaking of contrast, Mitt Romney’s current position on global warming is quite different from the president’s, but his record is also mixed. As Governor of Massachusetts, Romney had a fairly strong environmental record,

working to close some of the state’s most polluting power plants and pioneering a regional cap and trade program called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). In a 2003 letter to then governor of New York, George Pataki, Romney bragged about his efforts to fight global warming.

As you may know, the Commonwealth is making major strides to reduce the environmental impact of our power plants. Specifically, I am making good on my pledge to clean up the six oldest and dirtiest power plants in the state and to bring them up to new plant standards for NO3, SO2, mercury and CO2. We are the first state to enact a cap on CO2, implementing regulations that, by 2008, will reduce these emissions by 10%, removing 6,750 tons of CO2 per day.

In addition to promoting cap and trade, which many Republicans now call “cap and tax,” Romney expressed strong support during his 2008 presidential bid  for aggressive fuel efficiency standards, electric vehicles, and public-private partnerships to develop clean energy sources.

That all seems to have changed during his current run for the office. In the summer of 2011, Romney stated his belief that climate change was real.

I believe the world is getting warmer. I can’t prove that, but I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer. And number two, I believe that humans contribute to that. I don’t know how much our contribution is to that, because I know there have been periods of greater heat and warmth in the past, but I believe that we contribute to that. So I think it’s important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may well be significant contributors to the climate change and the global warming that you’re seeing.

By October of that same year, as the Republican primaries got fully underway, Romney’s views had morphed into, “We don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.” Now, Romney is using terms like “cap and tax” and having photo ops outside coal mines. Instead of talking about reducing CO2 emission, he’s saying we should focus on jobs. That’s quite a rightward swing for someone who in 2003, shortly after being elected governor, stood outside a coal-fired power plant in Salem Harbor and declared, “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people, and that plant kills people.”

Hopefully, in the final days of the campaign, voters will press both candidates on the importance of the global climate. In the absence of that, it seems likely that Obama and Romney will stick with issues they consider to be safer, that provide them with more political bang for the buck. If you want more information on where the 2012 presidential candidates stand on issues related to science and the environment, go to www.sciencedebate.org

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