Rewind through all the speechifying of the last nine months – through the TV debates, the stadium orations, the lecture-hall talks – and one phrase you’re unlikely to hear pass President Obama’s lips with any great conviction is the one that’s on everyone’s mind today: “climate change”. The candidate, who ran in 2008 with a promise to tackle global warming, has been remarkably tight-lipped this time round. How ironic, then, that it’s environmental fears that might just sweep Obama back into the White House.
Yesterday New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, sharply critical of the President in the past, reversed his stance and offered a surprise endorsement. The devastation wrought on New York by Hurricane Sandy, said Bloomberg, brought the stakes of this election into “sharp relief" and should force voters to remember Obama has taken "major steps to reduce our carbon consumption".
What an unexpected fillip for the President. By virtue of Romney's almost complete silence on the climate, Obama has found himself in the extremely enviable position of go-to (and only) Green. Wherever his campaign managers are right now, you can bet they’re doing everything possible to amplify that message, from talking up eco-friendly policies, to playing the Captain Planet theme tune just below hearing-level over press conference speakers.
This reappraisal is fortunate for the President. To most observers, it looked like politics and pragmatics had beaten Obama away from early environmental enthusiasms. In 2008, as President-elect, climate was the second major policy area he discussed, coming after only the economy’s woes. He pledged to set America on a path to reducing its carbon emissions by 80% in 2050. But as the economy continued to stutter, new sources of oil and gas emerged in America, and financial backing given to green projects came to nothing, talk of climate change started to sound politically unwise – and Obama took his foot off the pedal.
The Republicans were never going to jump on his back here. As a party their response to changing global temperatures has fallen largely in the “it’s not really an issue” camp, with a strong undercurrent of “it doesn’t exist”.
After Sandy, that line isn't working so well - and last minute attempts to change tack are underway, most notably former Republican governor of New York George Pataki's valiant but evidence-free claim Romney would be “far better” at managing the US's environmental imprint than Obama.
It's true that this campaign, focused so exclusively on the economy, has afforded little space for Obama to rev-up an old and potentially vote-losing belief. Neither he nor Romney broached the climate in the TV debates, despite summer droughts that have broiled America, bringing the price of corn up by 40% and scorching Colorado with wildfires. (“This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level”, said Jonathan Overpeck, a professor of atmospheric sciences ).
The few mentions Obama did give to the dangers of climate change pre-Sandy were delivered in the safe company of die-hard supporters. Speaking at an October 17th rally in the Richard and Norma Small Multi-Sport Center, Iowa, the President drew applause for this:
“We’ll keep reducing the carbon pollution that’s also heating the planet, because climate change isn’t a hoax. The droughts we’ve seen, the floods, the wildfires, those aren’t a joke. They’re a threat to our children’s future. And we can do something about it.”
Had the President said the above to a national audience, had he mentioned it to those golden swing voters, he would now be being hailed as a meteorological seer – and a more certain bet for office as The Man Who Predicted the Storm (and the man who can save us from it). As it is, he’s fortunate that a legacy of goodwill to green projects and a strong presidential showing in the wake of the storm is enough to convince undecided voters like Bloomberg.
Should he take office again, the pay-off between a healthy economy and a healthy environment won’t get any easier. But at the very least Obama shouldn’t be scared of talking about it anymore.