In an important departure from his recent administration-wide silence on climate change, President Obama announced in a Rolling Stone interview published today that he considers climate change and the money being thrown into the denial of science as one of the most important issues in the coming campaign discussion.
Part of the challenge over these past three years has been that people's number-one priority is finding a job and paying the mortgage and dealing with high gas prices. In that environment, it's been easy for the other side to pour millions of dollars into a campaign to debunk climate-change science. I suspect that over the next six months, this is going to be a debate that will become part of the campaign, and I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we're going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way. That there's a way to do it that is entirely compatible with strong economic growth and job creation -- that taking steps, for example, to retrofit buildings all across America with existing technologies will reduce our power usage by 15 or 20 percent. That's an achievable goal, and we should be getting started now.
The importance of this shift in Obama's perspective cannot be overemphasized. The issue is important not just on climate change, but on a whole host of science-driven policy problems, where Americans have increasingly been subject to well-financed and coordinated propaganda campaigns to confused them about the difference between articulately or forcefully argued opinion and the knowledge derived from measurements of nature and reflected in mainstream, peer-reviewed science.
The media have been largely complicit in this slide, often creating a false balance between knowledge and opinion and treating them as if there were simply two different but equal views of the problem. This has hampered the public's ability to discern truth from falsehood, and interfered with the functioning of democracy on climate change, but also on other science issues such as the teaching of creationism in science classes, or the notions that vaccines are toxic and are causing autism or that cell phones cause brain cancer, neither of which is supported by science and yet lawmakers have passed regulations and spent millions of dollars on them, or the ideas that abstinence-only education reduces teen pregnancy (it doesn't seem to -- but science-based sex-ed does) or that the HPV vaccine might somehow increase promiscuity by removing a deadly consequence of sex (it doesn't).
In 2008, we held a presidential science debate between Obama and then-opponent Senator John McCain. We organized it in part because we noted that of nearly 3,000 questions asked the candidates for president in 171 different interviews, just six mentioned the words "global warming" or "climate change," which was and remains the largest policy challenge facing the nation and the planet. To put that in perspective, three questions mentioned UFOs.
This time around the coverage of the issue has been little better, and is unlikely to be unless the candidates themselves push the issue. Our polling this year shows that the public wants the candidates to debate the issue, along with other science-based issues. Even devoutly religious voters this year say they prefer the candidates debate the big science-themed challenges facing the nation over another faith and values debate. Science is, in fact, a value proposition, and this year especially, voters are connecting with it more than they have in several decades.
Obama has a lot to gain by pushing climate change and also the acceptance and celebration of mainstream science as the best and fairest and most patriotic basis for public policy in America, and in a democracy for that matter. Polls show the majority of Americans believe that the scientists are right and hold scientists in extremely high regard, second only to teachers and members of the military.
In order to secure the nomination, Mitt Romney, who once supported cap and trade, has reversed his position and now says that
My view is that 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.
This is demonstrably false, and what's more, the American public believe it's false. Obama has an opportunity to use it as a significant wedge issue to shave votes away from Romney among moderate Republicans and Independents who believe science is the best basis for public policy. Romney appears to be trapped in Obama's message box on it: if he vascillates again he will alienate far right supporters who believe climate change is all a vast hoax, and will be easily labeled a flip-flop-flipper. If he doesn't, he stands to lose mainstream centrist voters to Obama.
It is probably not a coincidence that the Koch brothers, owners of petro-giant Koch Industries, the second largest privately held company in America, have pledged $60 million to defeat Obama. This signals that climate disinformation is likely to become a major part of the Republican-aligned presidential effort in the months to come. The Koch brothers have frequently been cited as donors to climate denial propaganda outfits like the Heartland Institute.
This means we will be likely to see more efforts like the recent attacks on NASA and the EPA as an agenda of deep environmental deregulation becomes a central campaign battleground. Whether Romney himself will be able to surf that successfully without alienating mainstream voters will be an important question. Recent polls, including ours, show voters are less concerned over the environment than at any time in recent memory, so anti-regulation forces likely see this as an opportunity. But climate is the notable exception, and if the extreme weather of last March and last year are any indication of things to come, global warming is going to be heating the campaign trail even more in the months ahead.
Get Shawn Lawrence Otto's new book: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, Starred Kirkus Review; Starred Publishers Weekly review. Winner of the Minnesota Book Award. "One of the most important books written in America in the last decade." Visit him at http://www.shawnotto.com. Like him on Facebook. Join ScienceDebate.org to get the presidential candidates to debate science.