Let's Talk about Climate, Mr. President

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Drought-stricken corn crops bake in the sun as temperatures continue to hover around 100 degrees Monday, July 25, 2011, in Tomball, Texas. Very little rain has fallen across the state this year. About 70 percent of Texas rangeland and pastures are classified as in very poor condition, which means there has been complete or near complete crop failure or there’s no food for grazing livestock.

The night of the first presidential debate, I showed up at a watching party unusually sweaty. It was a heavy, humid night in New York City—too hot for October, reminiscent of an evening in late June. I know that weather’s not climate, but I couldn’t help wondering: without climate change, how likely could it be that a night a few weeks into the fall would feel like this one? Was I experiencing the creep of days hotter than they should be, nights that just won’t cool down? Most Americans, it turns out, are asking themselves similar questions.

The latest research from the Yale and George Mason climate communications projects, released last Tuesday, shows that just shy of three-quarters of Americans believe that global warming is changing the weather in the United States. That proportion is increasing, up from 69 percent in March, and other polls are turning up the same results. After a miserable summer of heat waves, wildfires, and drought, the country decided to give climate change the benefit of the doubt.

One would think that, as the only candidate for president who believes that it’s necessary to do anything about this problem, President Obama might want to talk about that position. Perhaps at a nationally televised debate?

The last debate was supposed to be about domestic issues, and this summer’s drought, a disaster on a national scale, certainly should have qualified. It deprived Americans of their livelihoods and, by pushing up food prices, could eat away at household incomes across the country. It’s pretty easy to imagine exactly what Barack Obama could have said:

Now, scientists don’t know if this drought, in particular, was linked to climate change. What they do know is that—because of climate change—we’re going to see a lot more summers like this one in the future. Now, I’m trying to do something about that. I’m supporting clean energy so that we’re moving towards an energy system that will help solve these problems and that—by the way—provides good jobs. Governor Romney knows climate change is a problem. He’s said so. But he doesn’t want to do anything about it.”

This, in fact, is a decent characterization of Romney’s current position. In response to a questionnaire about scientific issues, he conveyed support for funding “research on efficient, low-emissions technologies” (which could mean wind farms but more likely means clean coal plants). He also said he supports nuclear power. These aren’t exactly new ideas, and together, they will do next to nothing to shift emissions in the right direction. It’s hard to think of any other issue where a presidential candidate can acknowledge that a world-changing, country-threatening crisis exists and offer no reasonable plan to address it.

Despite pleas, prodding, bargaining, and 160,000 signatures from environmental groups, the first debate contained nary a mention of climate change. (Nor did the vice presidential debate, even though it covered foreign policy—which some climate experts think is a better frame for climate change.) While it’s possible to blame this omission on Jim Lehrer, it’s unnecessary. Early in the debate, the two candidates spent a surprising amount of time talking about energy. Obama had more than one opportunity to talk about why he supports the clean energy economy, not just for its (somewhat dubious) power to create jobs but as a strategy to shore up the country’s future.

The same polls showing Americans believe climate change is affecting them leave an opportunity for the president to pursue environmental protection as successful political messaging. President Obama’s base agrees that human activities cause global warming, according to the September Yale and George Mason report, as do more than three-fifths of undecided voters. The researchers also found that the president's base thinks he should do more to address climate change, as do the majority of undecided voters. Climate Desk's Chris Mooney has rounded up a series of additional polls and studies that should make any political operativeís head turn: not only do people believe in climate change, but pushing for “green” policies and clean energy could be reliable vote-getters.

There are some pitfalls for the president if he chooses to bring up climate change. Governor Romney boasted in the last debate that he just loves clean coal. Unfortunately, President Obama does as well. As a senator, he supported the ill-fated FutureGenóa clean coal project dreamed up by the Bush administration (and eventually located in Illinois) that sucked up billions of dollars in government funding and never even began to function the way it was meant to. As president, Obama continued to sink money into its second coming. If Solyndra is a scandal—as Romney, who brought up the failed solar company in the debate, would like America to believe—FutureGen should be, too, but as it involves coal, Republicans haven't gone after it with the same enthusiasm. Obama can't pin Romney for rooting for the technology without facing his own past with it. Governor Romney has also plugged natural gas. Obama has supported the industry as much as anyone with a shred of concern for environmental impact can, but his position on fracking—do it as long as it can be done safely—aligns more closely with the position of D.C.-based environmental groups than with the views of local environmentalists. Colorado has beefed up its regulation of horizontal drilling, but Denver may not have been the wisest place for the president to speak as warmly about natural gas as he did in his State of the Union, for instance.

The beauty of this issue, though, is that Obama doesn’t have to speak specifically about either of these energy sources. He has to speak only about what Mitt Romney’s planning to do to help the environment as president—nothing—and what he, as president, is doing. In today’s debate, the president needs to stand up for the work he’s done on clean energy, instead of letting Romney pretend those policies wasted money. He needs to talk about how Americans are saving money by driving fuel-efficient cars that just happen to also help draw down emissions, how he’s not only supporting cleaner energy today, by working to make natural gas extraction effective and safe, but also for years to come, by investing in green technology, and how Mitt Romney wants to focus on the past by depending only on dirty fossil fuels. He should ask Mitt Romney if it’s preferable to let countries like China take the lead on creating clean technology and let others get a jump on the future.

The relative certainty that Americans are feeling about climate change and its impacts will not last. If the weather improves next summer, some newly minted climate change believers will drop back into a comfortable, less sweaty uncertainty. There will be fewer unseasonably muggy days to dredge up questions about climate change. That Americans are so willing to listen—more than they have been in years—to leaders talk about climate change at this particular moment is an unexpected political windfall for Democrats. If President Obama would only talk more about wind farms, he might be able to reap some benefit from it.

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