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The Politics of 'Climate Silence'

10/27/2012 09:00 am ET | Updated Jan 07, 2013

As has been noted relentlessly this week, Monday evening's third and final presidential debate marked the first time since the 1980s that American presidential or vice presidential contenders were neither asked about, nor inclined to offer up on their own, opinions on climate change and what ought to be done about it.

For environmentalists -- and many ordinary Americans -- it seemed a rather discouraging milestone, particularly as a gargantuan super-storm -- of the sort that virtually all climate scientists have been warning for years would increase in frequency as the planet warmed -- threatens to slam headlong into the East Coast in a couple days' time. "Hurricane Sandy," wrote Daniel Honan at BigThink.com, "Mother Nature's revenge on the 2012 election?"

Phil Radford, the executive director of Greenpeace USA, suggested the absence of high level discussion of climate change at the debates was inexcusable. "I just think it's irresponsible for our leaders to not address one of the biggest challenges facing our generation," he said in a phone call on Friday. "It's one of the biggest security threats we have -- it's a threat to agriculture, it threatens our economy. And to simply not talk about it is one of the biggest failures of our leadership."

So what's going on? Well, you could start by following the money. Of the $12.5 million donated to by the energy and natural resources industries -- dominated by oil, gas and coal companies -- to political action committees supporting a presidential candidate this campaign cycle, 84 percent went to Republicans, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Romney alone has drawn 62 percent -- or $7.7 million -- of that funding.

Romney-friendly super PACs -- those organizationally and corporate-funded outfits made possible by the Supreme Court's Citizen United decision -- have also been busy outspending Obama-oriented groups by a wide margin. And the single biggest corporate donation since super PACs were unleashed on the American electoral process? That sum -- $2.5 million -- landed earlier this month in the coffers of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a group angling to elect Republicans to the House of Representatives.

It came from the oil and gas behemoth, Chevron.

So it should come as no surprise that Romney specifically and the Republicans generally have all doubled-down on opposing virtually anything that smacks of climate or clean-energy policy. And President Obama? He's tried to walk a fine line, pushing his new standards on fuel efficiency and power plant emissions while taking care to tout, and a bit disingenuously take credit for, expansions in domestic oil, gas and even coal production. The free-market CATO institute recently called the Obama campaign's self-titled "All of the Above" energy policy a "no lobbyist left behind" strategy.

Whether or not that last bit is fair, the political chess board for the entire federal government is fairly clear, as are the disincentives for talking too much about climate change. As David Roberts at Grist recently wrote:

The right is united in implacable opposition to all solutions. Burdened with so many coal states, the [Democratic] coalition doesn't have the votes to overcome the right's opposition. So there's just nothing to say. There's no margin in talking about it. It doesn't get Dems any votes they don't already have. It doesn't -- despite the festival of self-delusion going on lately -- move any independent or undecided votes. And it activates furious right-wing activism. So ... who has incentive to talk about it? No one.

As it happens, Americans weren't universally incensed when global warming wasn't broached at the recent slew of debates. In a HuffPost/YouGov survey conducted this week -- and after the final debate on Monday -- a full 46 percent of respondents said they thought the candidates' time during their four televised meetings was "better spent on topics other than climate change."

This does not mean that, after decades of increasingly clear scientific evidence, the American electorate has suddenly buried its head in the sand. A survey released jointly last week by researchers at Yale and George Mason Universities, after all, showed that 70 percent of Americans now believe that global warming is happening, and more than half think it is mostly attributable to human activity (read: burning fossil fuels).

The HuffPost/YouGov survey produced similar findings. A full 63 percent said that human activity was either causing or contributing to climate change. Only 6 percent of respondents said climate change was not happening at all. (See an explanation of the methodology here.)

Sure, these sorts of numbers bounce around a fair bit over time. My friend and former colleague at The New York Times, Andy Revkin -- who has covered the issue of climate change as long as anyone -- likes to compare these sorts of opinion poll results to "water sloshing in a shallow pan." That is to say, they are easily tipped, display lots of movement, and aren't very deep. "I've stopped paying much attention to polling focused tightly on attitudes on climate," Revkin said in a recent email message, "because unless those findings are cast in the broader context of issues voters care about, and vote on, they have little policy relevance."

The issues that voters care about, and vote on, of course, are typically much closer to home -- jobs, the economy, and so forth. No surprise there. The apparent increase in historic storms and floods, including the current mayhem being threatened by Hurricane Sandy, is starting to make climate change a bit more intimate an issue for ordinary Americans as well, but there remain, as Revkin put it, "a long list of reasons greenhouse-driven climate change hasn't yet, and won't soon, make the top-20 lists of public worries."

Manufactured doubts, funded by fossil fuel interests, no doubt plays a role. But so, too, do the myriad questions that climate scientists are legitimately still sorting out -- like, just how hot it might get, how soon, and how quickly sea levels will rise. There's also a lingering and not altogether inaccurate realization among many Americans that rich countries like this one are apt to have the resources to adapt to climate changes -- up to a point. No doubt this contributes to the notion that global warming is simply not as immediate a problem as say, finding a job or paying bills.

And yet, when asked in the same HuffPost/YouGov survey about new restrictions on emissions by coal-burning power plants introduced recently by the Environmental Protection Agency, 53 percent of respondents said they either supported the measures as introduced, or thought they should go even further. Another 57 percent either endorsed EPA's tough new fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, or said such standards should be even further improved.

To some, those numbers might seem lower than they ought to be, but they suggest nonetheless that sizable portions of the electorate -- even amid all the much-lamented climate silence -- are not only happy to see steps taken to address the problem, but hungry for more aggressive action.

In the end, Revkin suggests, as have others, that a little climate silence at this stage might not be such a bad thing. "Obviously, I would have liked for it to have been mentioned, preferably in foreign policy debate," he told me. "But in a way perhaps it's good that it wasn't, because that would cast the issue in terms of a debate. In other words, there would basically be a false polarization of an issue that Obama quietly -- and I think Romney, if he got into office -- quietly would be working on, which is the root our climate problem, which are our energy policies."

Heading into the final presidential debate, I asked Richard Martin, the editorial director of Pike Research, a clean-tech market consultancy, and the author of the new book "SuperFuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future," about all this, including the competing energy platforms. He wondered, what platforms?

"Neither Obama nor Romney has really developed one, beyond 'all of the above' (Obama) and 'more drilling' (Romney)," Martin said. "Given the potentially catastrophic results of global climate change, in terms of refugeeism, water shortages due to prolonged drought, the collapse of the most affected nations, and likely unrest in petro-states like Nigeria, energy security for the U.S. is closely tied to limiting worldwide carbon emissions."

Just don't look for either candidate to say much about that until the election is over.

Poll methodology: The HuffPost/YouGov survey was conducted online on Oct. 24-25 among 1,000 U.S. adults and has a 4.4 percentage point margin of error. It used a sample drawn from YouGov's opt-in online panel that was selected to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion, and church attendance.

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