The coming US presidential election without a doubt has implications for economic and environmental policy throughout the world, especially regarding the numerous hazards and risks induced by climate change.  Yet the term ‘climate change’ itself appears absent from both candidates’ vocabularies as it has not been mentioned in the presidential debates nor very much in their campaigns.  Why is this? The Commission on Presidential Debates which organises the debates is not exactly open about choosing the topics, which it does behind closed doors.  The way in which the debates themselves are funded through the commission also appears dubious, accepting sponsorship from the world’s largest brewing company in the world Anheuser-Busch (InBev) who has been involved in the debates since 1992.

Often industries (especially fossil fuel companies) have expressed little interest in averting climate change, for them mitigating greenhouse gas emissions equates to loss of profit as well as loss of jobs, which is anathema to the current economic situation in many parts of the world, not only the US.  Yet the whole reason behind climate mitigation to begin with is the impact it will have and has made on the global economy.  It will result for example in endangering agriculture in parts of the world where food shortages are common.  Yet the realities of climate change have not hit the more developed countries as hard as for example indigenous communities whose way of life is based on living off the land (see Making indigenous voices on climate change heard).

While EU mitigation efforts have made some progress in developing mitigation and adaptation policies, what the largest western global emitters of CO2 do in terms of policy will likely determine how other countries will respond, such as China.  If the US government pulls out of all policy conversations on climate change mitigation and invests little in adaptation efforts the overall impact could likely be devastating.  This is what economist Nicholas Stern conveyed in 2006 in the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change.  But if decisions are made to curb emissions now while implementing innovative ways to help stimulate economies such as the manufacture and implementation of clean energy technologies, then the situation could change.

So what are the US presidential candidates’ positions on climate change?  A science Q&A session from sciencedebate.org asked both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney about climate change which provides some detail on their positions.  Unfortunately, in all three presidential debates (see transcripts of first, second and third debates) and the vice presidential debate climate change was not mentioned once, but at the very least some idea of their positions can be given.  Also, the question of whether special interests should have any role in setting up debates in any country is critical to addressing issues that are of global importance because all too easily the most important problems that require direct attention can be lost in politicians’ and their financial backers’ quest for power.

From sciencedebate.org:

2. Climate Change. 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?

Excerpts from responses:

Romney: 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.

Obama: Climate change is the one of the biggest issues of this generation, and we have to meet this challenge by driving smart policies that lead to greater growth in clean energy generation and result in a range of economic and social benefits.

Romney: The reality is that the problem is called Global Warming, not America Warming. China long ago passed America as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. Developed world emissions have levelled off while developing world emissions continue to grow rapidly, and developing nations have no interest in accepting economic constraints to change that dynamic. In this context, the primary effect of unilateral action by the U.S. to impose costs on its own emissions will be to shift industrial activity overseas to nations whose industrial processes are more emissions-intensive and less environmentally friendly.

Obama: Since taking office I have established historic standards limiting greenhouse gas emissions from our vehicles for the first time in history. My administration has made unprecedented investments in clean energy, proposed the first-ever carbon pollution limits for new fossil-fuel-fired power plants and reduced carbon emissions within the Federal Government.

Already clear differences can be seen between the candidates in their positions on climate change and energy.  While Mitt Romney considers it a problem according to him the fact that it is global and therefore not the responsibility of the US to intervene appropriately is one example.  This is  shifting the burden of proof onto developing countries that they must cut emissions despite the fact that the problem originated from the most industrialised countries first, such as the US.  Not long ago the US was at the top of the emissions list, but retains second place.  In the case of Barack Obama while mentioning clean energy and limiting vehicle emissions little more is offered.  Romney who refers to a supposed ‘lack of scientific consensus’ about climate change is relying upon the same message large oil companies have used to stifle political actions to address the environmental effects of climate change.

There is also the question of leadership in mitigation policy if Romney were elected president.  If elected, a Romney administration would seem to do little if any work towards mitigation itself and countries with rapidly developing economies such as China would likely respond similarly.  Romney refers to what he calls a ‘“No Regrets” policy that he claims would lower emissions overall, but do little in leading any global initiative to address the problem.  Obama on the other hand has worked with the EPA to implement a form of cap-and-trade, which was actually developed by the government agency to originally limit sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions and mercury.

Taking into account Romney’s preference for burning coal and oil in the US and Obama’s pursuit of the country’s natural gas resources, both have important differences when it comes to energy strategy, but whether either strategy is enough to combat the effects of climate change is another matter.  If Obama is re-elected it would likely give renewable energy technologies more of a chance to be widely implemented in the US and sold to other countries, despite the false accusations made by Romney about the Obama administration’s investment in the development of clean energy technologies58 of the 63 renewable energy companies invested in by the US federal government are still in business, despite the global financial crisis.  In contrast, besides promoting the use of nuclear power, which Obama also supports, Romney has expressed little interest in low-carbon energy technologies in his campaign overall.

Romney’s comment: ‘ultimately, the science is an input to the public policy decision; it does not dictate a particular policy response’ appears defensive in light of the fact that science could play a much stronger role in policy making, especially environmental policy not only in the US, but throughout the world. While he does not appear as ‘anti-science’ as his political party has been portrayed in the past, he seems most comfortable talking about science and technology in terms of private industry.

Obviously the role of industry in science and technology has always been crucial to its development in society, but when it comes to informing public policy maybe climate science can take a step forward in the future and industrial lobbyists can look at climate change as something more than simply an obstruction to their profit margins.

You can read both candidates’ responses at sciencedebate.org