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Not a Hoax: Climate Change Shows Up in a Presidential Acceptance Speech

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The presidential candidates outed on the issue of climate change.

President Obama has described climate change as "one of the biggest issues of this generation." I don't know about you, but I find it a little hard to understand how such a "big" issue received such short shrift in both Tampa and Charlotte over the last two weeks.

To be fair, Obama did give climate change a brief shout-out in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last night. Sandwiched between the triple-decker mentions of investing in "wind, solar and clean coal" and biofuels and developing "a hundred-year supply of natural gas that's right beneath our feet" and aiming for "a future where more Americans have the chance to gain the skills they need to compete," Obama said:

"My plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet, because climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. [Cheers, applause.] They are a threat to our children's future." (Watch video.)

That's one better than Romney's acceptance speech, which had only one rather oblique (and left-handed) reference to climate change:

"President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans [laughs and claps] and heal the planet. [Laughs] MY promise is to help you and your family. [Applause]" (Watch video.)

I think we can safely assume that Romney was signaling that reducing carbon pollution will not be a top priority in a Romney administration.

(Check out the video of comedian Stephen Colbert's take on Romney's promise on The Colbert Report.)

So What Are Their Actual Positions on Climate?

Of course national conventions and their speeches are mostly stagecraft -- free time for campaign ads blanketing the airwaves and Interwebs. So perhaps they're not the best vehicle to learn about the candidates' official position on a topic like climate change. Enter ScienceDebate.org, "an independent citizens' initiative," its Web banner explains, "asking candidates for office to discuss the top scientific questions facing America."

Founded during the last presidential election, the nonprofit 501(c)(3) group is "dedicated to elevating science and engineering policy issues in the national dialogue of the United States." And true to that mission, ScienceDebate.org asked both presidential campaigns to respond in writing to a series of 14 questions chosen from a host of questions received from thousands of Americans of the scientific, engineering and concerned-citizen persuasion.

The question on climate was posed like this:

"The Earth's climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change -- and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?"

The campaigns' responses, available here, are telling. In terms of length, kudos have to go to the Romney campaign, whose answers tended to be meatier.

While neither candidate's response -- in my opinion -- fully answered the question, both responses provide a glimpse into the candidates' different perspectives.

The Real Romney on Climate?

Romney's position on climate change has been ... well, let's just say a work in progress. Time was, in 2004 as the governor of Massachusetts, he had a climate protection plan and he even pushed for the state to enter the cap-and-trade program between 10 Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states to reduce power plant emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2). But he later backed away from that position, eventually becoming a full-throated opponent of cap and trade and embracing climate-science denial; to wit: "We don't know what's causing climate change." (And then there's his running mate Paul Ryan's position on climate change.)

So you can imagine how interested I was to to see how the Romney campaign would handle the ScienceDebate question. Turns out, the response was a bit more nuanced than one might have expected from his recent statements. Five paragraphs long, it began with this:

"I am not a scientist myself, but my best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences. However, there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue -- on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution, and the severity of the risk -- and I believe we must support continued debate and investigation within the scientific community."

So, at least in the closeted space of ScienceDebate, Romney willingly adheres to the scientific facts: the planet is warming, humans contribute to that warming, and there are risks associated with that warming that policy makers should consider.

I do take issue with the second part of the statement about the lack of scientific consensus. It gives the impression that there is little need for action at this time.

While it is true that there is still scientific debate about how much warming there will be, how much humans contribute, and how severe the risks will be, those are a second-order or even-third order debate. For example we can't say exactly how much warmer it will be, but the scientific consensus is that it will be significant and will pose significant risks.

Think of it this way: if you are allergic to nuts, all you want to know is if there are nuts in the dish you're thinking of ordering. The fact that there is no consensus among the chefs as to whether the nuts are pecans or almonds is not all that relevant to your decision.

As far as the so-called lack of scientific consensus Romney points to, a report of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences stated: "Uncertainty is not a reason for inaction."

In the rest of his response to the climate question, Romney attacks the president for the cap-and-trade proposal (which passed the House in 2009 but died in the Senate) and the greenhouse gas emissions standards for power plants that his administration has promulgated. Romney promises to not advance any legislation or policy that will harm the American economy and proposes instead to pursue a "No Regrets" policy with "robust government funding for research on efficient, low-emissions technologies" -- which seems at odds with his "pick no winners," "oil above all" energy policy from his energy white paper (see post) -- and to "streamline the regulatory framework for the deployment of new energy technologies, including a new wave of investment in nuclear power."

Focusing on His Achievements, Obama Is Short on What's Next

In his acceptance speech last night Obama seemed a bit short on specifics for what his second term would mean in the area of policy. His campaign's response to Science Debate's question on climate represents a similar approach.

A major distinction between his and Romney's responses was the absence in Obama's of any snipes, subtle or otherwise, about the "lack of a scientific consensus." Obama's statement about the problem is straightforward and concise:

"Climate change is the one of the biggest issues of this generation."

And Obama's record is not devoid of some progress. Where Romney filled a good part of his five-paragraph response criticizing Obama's remedies for dealing with climate change, proposed and otherwise, Obama's shorter response touted the baby steps of success his administration has achieved toward making dents in America's greenhouse gas problem.

But Obama's prescription for moving forward on tackling climate includes no great initiatives, no calls for a comprehensive national policy on climate change, and no bold proposals for a new blitz to get a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, the international climate treaty that grew out of the  U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change ratified under President George H. W. Bush.

There are proposals, but they are mostly incremental, vaguely similar in their small-potatoes approach to Romney's no-regrets initiatives laid out on ScienceDebate.org. For example, Obama's talk of investing in clean energy.

And yet, Obama does outline what appears to be a more direct and assertive role for government: for example, fostering tighter fuel economy standards for automobiles and emission standards for power plants -- two actions the president has taken that Romney opposes and promises to reverse (see here and here).

Is climate your make-or-break issue in this election cycle? They might be slim pickings but this is what you've got so far to distinguish the two candidates.

Crossposted with TheGreenGrok | Follow us on Facebook.com/deanchameides.

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