The current election cycle has been great at bringing a lot of issues to forefront of the American voters’ minds — Social Security, the tax code, Big Bird. Climate change is not one of those issues. While we’ve heard Mitt Romney and Barack Obama talk exhaustively about jobs, health care and foreign policy, you’d be hard pressed to find quotes from either candidate digging into the gritty details of rising ocean levels or the economic consequences of reducing carbon emissions. Forget about any discussion of this summer’s extreme weather, including the horrible droughts that plunged half of the nation’s counties into a state of emergency. Why isn’t this an important election issue? Well, it’s complicated.
Let’s start with the obvious. The candidates must not be talking about climate change because the average American voter doesn’t care about climate change, right? Not quite. Americans do care about climate, but it’s not necessarily the issue that’s going to win an election. A recent Pew survey showed that “energy policy” is ninth on the list of important issues, and the percentage of those surveyed who said that the issue was “very important” dropped from 77 percent in 2008 to just 55 percent. But that’s still over half!
The more interesting number to look at is exactly who thinks climate change is an important issue. In March, researchers at Yale and George Mason conducted a study of how likely voters view the role of climate change in the upcoming presidential election, and the results were fairly predictable. An overwhelming 82 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of independents agreed that the government should undertake a medium- to large-scale effort to stop climate change. Only 44 percent of Republicans agreed with them. Similarly, when it came down to whether or not climate change would affect who they voted for, 69 percent of likely Obama voters said it was one of several important issues, which amounts to over twice the 32 percent of likely Romney voters who responded in kind.
In other words, the majority of Democrats and likely Obama voters have already made up their minds on the issue. Moreover, Republicans and likely Romney voters have as well. This would explain why Obama’s spoken up about climate change a few times, and Romney has more or less kept quiet: Both men have to keep their bases happy while not alienating potential swing voters.
In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, the president let his stance be known. “Climate change is not a hoax,” he declared. “More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children’s future.” Romney, in contrast, brushed the issue aside. “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet,” he said. “My promise is to help you and your family.”
More talk about climate change could just scare people. “When it is isolated from the things they care about, people tend to react more negatively, especially if they feel they’re being lectured about it, because they often feel there’s little they can do about it,” explained Paul Bledsoe, former chief staffer on climate change communications in the Clinton White House. What Obama could do is highlight his success in combating climate change these past four years, but even then, his record is spotty. Yes, he’s tightened pollution standards for cars and power plants and created tens of thousands of so-called green jobs. But he also failed to push his comprehensive energy and climate bill through the Senate two years ago. Even Al “Inconceivable Truth” Gore criticized the legislation.
This is all to say that Romney knows he’s not going to win any votes by talking about climate change. We can also assume that the president knows his record on the issue is a little bit spotty, so it’s best to just address it in a drive-by fashion like he did at the convention. Climate change is an important issue, for sure. Elections aren’t just about important issues, though. They’re about vote-winning issues. Like jobs, health care and foreign policy.