Romney and Obama don't want to talk about Climate Change

Monday, October 29, 2012

Romney and Obama don't want to talk about Climate Change

According The NY Times, President Obama and Mitt Romney agree that the world is warming and that humans are at least partly to blame. It remains wholly unclear what either of them plans to do about it.

Both Obama and Romney avoid talk of the climate change
Photo: New York Times

Even after a year of record-smashing temperatures, drought and Arctic ice melt, none of the moderators of the four general-election debates asked about climate change, nor did either of the candidates broach the topic.

Throughout the campaign, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have seemed most intent on trying to outdo each other as lovers of coal, oil and natural gas — the very fuels most responsible for rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Mr. Obama has supported broad climate change legislation, financed extensive clean energy projects and pushed new regulations to reduce global warming emissions from cars and power plants. But neither he nor Mr. Romney has laid out during the campaign a legislative or regulatory program to address the fundamental questions arising from one of the most vexing economic, environmental, political and humanitarian issues to face the planet. Should the United States cut its greenhouse gas emissions, and, if so, how far and how fast? Should fossil fuels be more heavily taxed? Should any form of clean energy be subsidized, and for how long? Should the United States lead international mitigation efforts? Should the nation pour billions of new dollars into basic energy research? Is the climate system so fraught with uncertainty that the rational response is to do nothing?

Many scientists and policy experts say the lack of a serious discussion of climate change in the presidential contest represents a lost opportunity to engage the public and to signal to the rest of the world American intentions for dealing with what is, by definition, a global problem that requires global cooperation.

“On climate change, the political discourse here is massively out of step with the rest of the world, but also with the citizens of this country,” said Andrew Steer, the president of the World Resources Institute and a former special envoy for climate change at the World Bank. “Polls show very clearly that two-thirds of Americans think this is a real problem and needs to be addressed.”

Mr. Steer noted that climate change was no longer a partisan issue in Europe and that China, Japan, Australia and South Korea had taken significant steps to reduce emissions and invest heavily in clean energy technology.

“The real question in this country,” said Mr. Steer, a British citizen, “is why politicians don’t see it as in their interest to discuss it.”

The list of reasons is long.

Any serious effort to address climate change will require a transformation of the nation’s system for producing and consuming energy and will, at least in the medium term, mean higher prices for fuel and electricity. Powerful incumbent industries — coal, oil, utilities — are threatened by such changes and have mounted a well-financed long-term campaign to sow doubt about climate change. The Koch brothers and others in the oil industry have underwritten advertising campaigns and grass-roots efforts to support like-minded candidates. And the Republican Party has essentially declared climate change a nonproblem.

The two most effective ways of reducing global warming pollution — taxing it or regulating it — are politically toxic in a year when economic problems are paramount. After a bill died in the Senate in 2010, Mr. Obama abandoned his support for cap and trade, a market-based method to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and he has given little hint of what regulatory policies he intends to pursue if he wins a second term. Aides said that he would not propose a carbon tax or other energy tax, but that he would consider supporting one as part of a larger budget and spending deal.

As governor of Massachusetts, Mr. Romney considered joining a regional cap-and-trade system, then abandoned it because of uncertainty over costs. He has opposed Mr. Obama’s steps to regulate emissions from power plants and vehicles. He has said he would reverse Mr. Obama’s air quality regulations and would renegotiate the auto efficiency standard of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 that automakers agreed to this year.

The struggling economy has made it difficult for emerging clean energy companies to get the capital they need to reach commercial scale and compete with producers of traditional energy sources. Government programs to provide that seed money are highly controversial, as the fight over tax breaks for wind power companies and the recent failures of the solar panel maker Solyndra and the advanced battery manufacturer A123 Systems showed.

The Obama administration provided $90 billion in new financing from the 2009 stimulus for clean energy projects, but most of that money is gone.

Though there is little doubt that the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation have altered the earth’s climate, some uncertainty remains about whether and when such changes will become unmanageable. Huge technological challenges persist in transforming the energy generation system. Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney refer to “clean coal,” shorthand for capturing the carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants, but the technology is still in its infancy.

International efforts to address climate change, which showed great promise when Mr. Obama took office, have sputtered in recent years because of fears that limiting carbon emissions means limiting economic growth. There is also considerable resistance to any plan that would require the United States and other wealthy countries to take stronger measures than those demanded of China, India and other fast-growing economies that are responsible for the bulk of the growth in global emissions.

Mr. Romney’s chief domestic policy adviser, Oren Cass, said the nation should not take unilateral steps. “What it is going to do is hurt our economy very seriously, and it’s going to drive a lot of industrial activity from the United States to countries that are, frankly, much less efficient in their use of energy,” he said at an energy debate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this month.

The New York Times