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Bill Becker on Climate Change in the US Presidential Campaign

The Obama and Romney campaigns are making the point that there are big differences between the positions of the two presidential candidates, and America has a clear choice between two futures. There are no issues on which those statements are truer than energy policy and its impact on global climate change.  The candidates haven’t said much about climate change so far.  They should be forced to talk about it in one of the upcoming presidential debates, preferably the first of the three mano a mano face-offs on Oct. 3 in Denver. Every interest group in the country would like to see its issues highlighted in a presidential debate. Why should climate change be at the top of the list? First, it is no longer an issue we can put off for the future.  When climate scientists began to firm up their conclusions that climate change is real and caused by us humans, most of us thought we wouldn’t experience the impacts for a few generations.  That turns out not to be the case. Climate change already has become a clear and present danger to the American people and to international stability. Second, climate change has huge implications for the issues the candidates are talking about. For example: On the economy, consider the impact that drought is having on ranchers, farmers, small businesses and food prices.  Weather-related damages in the United States last year totaled nearly $24 billion. That might boost the GDP – a blunt and uncaring measure of economic activity – but it’s not the kind of economy most of us like, and it’s likely to get much worse. On public health, the candidates have significant differences on how to pay for health insurance. They haven’t talked, however, about the fact that global climate change will have major impacts on our health and the cost of health care. Nearly 1,100 Americans died last year and more than 8,800 others were injured, in natural disasters and weather events. The American Public Health Association calls climate change “one of the most serious public health threats facing our nation”. An interagency group of experts from the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, among others, has concluded: There is no doubt…that climate change is currently affecting public health through myriad environmental consequences, such as sea-level rise, changes in precipitation resulting in flooding and drought, heat waves, changes in intensity of hurricanes and storms, and degraded air quality, that are anticipated to continue into the foreseeable future.  The agencies identified 11 broad types of climate-related health impacts, ranging from increased asthma and allergies to heat-related illness and deaths, food- and water-born diseases, and the health impacts of fires, hurricanes, floods and drought. On the federal budget deficit and federal spending, government outlays for disaster response and recovery and the federal flood and crop insurance programs already are feeling the impact.  We can expect those costs to rise. We also can expect that the massive spending necessary to repair aging dams and levees, and to build new ones, will reach into the hundreds of billions of dollars. States and localities will not be able to fix and build these structures without help. The role of governing?  Lehrer says he will ask Obama and Romney about this on Oct. 3.   He should ask whether the federal government has a responsibility to help the country manage the significant risks that the worst predictions of climate scientists will come to pass. Among other things, climate change threatens homeland security, including the ability of our critical infrastructure to withstand unprecedented weather extremes. Lehrer might also point out that good climate policy is good politics. Several recent opinion polls have found that the majority of Americans acknowledge climate change and want the government to do something about it.  Among the latest is a poll taken from Aug. 31 to Sept. 12 by George Mason University and the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications. It found that among likely voters, 7% remain undecided. They could prove critical in a close election. Among them:

  1. 80% believe climate change is happening;

  2. 61% say the candidates’ positions on climate change will be one of the important issues that will determine their vote for president;

  3. 64% say the president and Congress should be doing more about global warming;

  4. 83% say the United States should use more renewable energy resources; and

  5. 55% want the country to use less coal, oil and gas. The only discussion of climate change so far in the presidential campaign has been the remote exchange between Romney and Obama during their convention speeches. Here’s how the veteran advisor to presidents on environmental issues, Gus Speth, described it on Grist: What was the most chilling moment, to me, in the Republican convention (was) when Romney used, as a laugh line, where Obama said he wanted to slow the rise of the oceans, and the Republican convention broke out in laughter at the idea that somebody would take climate, and climate science, seriously. I mean, wow. It’s one thing to have a good number of really off-the-wall people denying the science and running around debunking the climate issue, but to have the whole Republican convention go up in peals of laughter at the idea that somebody would want to do something about it, as a priority, was really chilling. I think Obama responded to that, briefly, and incompletely.  You can certainly fault the administration for dropping the issue in the last couple of years. Until he brings it back into the campaign a little more fully, he’s not going to have much of a mandate to move on it in the next four years. So it’s very important for him to bring it back into the political mainstream, into the discourse. I hope it’ll come back up in the debates, for example, in a much more forceful way. To help the candidates answer a “what will you do about the climate” question, the Presidential Climate Action Project will release the latest of its reports next week on what the President and his Administration can do, with or without Congress.  Among its proposals will be how the next Administration can launch America’s deliberate and historic transition to an advanced energy economy. The bottom line is this: The American people are finding they can’t run and can’t hide from the insidious impacts of global warming. Political candidates should not be allowed to hide from the issue, either. Bill Becker is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.

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