Among political insiders in Washington, the conventional wisdom is that action on global climate change is a dead issue for the foreseeable future. But that need not, and should not, be the case.
The atmospheric thermostat isn't on hold while we wait for a better political moment. And outside the beltway where voters are dealing with drought, floods, fires and heat waves -- and soon, higher food prices -- the right political moment may already have arrived. What remains is for our current and prospective elected leaders to seize it.
That might not be as difficult as some think. In a poll last March by George Mason University and the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 82 percent of respondents said they had personally experienced one or more extreme weather events during the previous year; more than one in three Americans said they had been personally harmed by extreme weather. A Gallup poll the same month found that 77 percent of Americans say they are "personally worried" about global warming. The well-documented risk is that these impacts will grow much more severe if we don't address them.
At this point in the campaign, neither Gov. Romney nor President Obama has said much about the issue. It may be an uncomfortable topic for them. A year ago, Gov. Romney acknowledged anthropogenic global warming and said "it's important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases." Several months later, he flip-flopped without apology.
In the only mention of the climate issue on his official campaign website, he supports taking away EPA's ability to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. Romney's site lays out his positions on 24 issues, but environment is not among them.
On the closely related issue of energy policy, Gov. Romney boasts that "the United States is blessed with a cornucopia of carbon-based energy resources" -- the resources most responsible for anthropogenic global warming. He decries the federal government's support for technologies such as wind and solar, but mentions nothing about subsidies to oil, coal, gas or nuclear power. He wants to restrict government support for renewable energy to basic research, in effect ending the government's efforts to expedite the commercialization of technologies we need for a clean energy technology.
President Obama has been criticized for not doing enough in his first term. As president-elect in 2008, he said "now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all," and his presidency would "mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change." However, he failed to throw the full weight of his presidency behind the cap-and-trade bill that eventually died with a whimper in Congress in 2010.
With all due respect, the central theme of the president's energy strategy -- "all of the above" -- is a cop-out. It's what politicians say when they want to make everyone happy, in this case the well-endowed fossil energy industries. The reality is that America needs to make some very tough choices about energy in the next four years, in favor of those that don't pollute.
It would be profoundly irresponsible for the candidates to avoid specific commitments on mitigating climate change, and profoundly irresponsible for the media and voters to let them. Few people in the United States, in red states or blue, are escaping the destructive weather we've seen in recent years -- weather that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists say will be more likely and more extreme in the years ahead.
To encourage a direct and detailed discussion of global warming, the Presidential Climate Action Project is being revived this year. We are offering to consult with each of the presidential candidates and their policy staffs on how to address global warming in ways that are consistent with conservative, moderate and liberal values.
During the 2008 campaign and the first two years of the Obama administration, PCAP provided all of the presidential candidates and the White House with volumes of information on how Congress and the president could reform federal policies and programs to deal with the emerging realities of global warming.
Anticipating an uncooperative Congress, our primary focus was what the president could do unilaterally by exercising his or her executive authority. While the Obama Administration could have been more aggressive in pushing cap-and-trade legislation, it has used its authorities in a variety of ways to address climate change, ranging from executive orders to improve the environmental practices of the federal government and to protect the integrity of its climate research, to an historic increase in vehicle efficiency standards and EPA's decision to go forward with the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.
Political insiders argue -- and it's true -- that climate change doesn't appear on the list of the voters' top concerns. The list is dominated by the economy, along with the budget deficit, health care and the environment in general. But it doesn't take a climate scientist to see that our changing weather has a significant impact on each of those issues. Rising food prices aren't going to help the families trying to make ends meet. Extreme weather doesn't help bring down budget deficits, with the government's costs going up for disaster assistance and taxpayer-supported flood and crop insurance.
As Nicholas Stern and others have warned for a long time, addressing climate change now is far cheaper than trying to address it later, when the impacts have grown worse, some beyond mitigation. Arguing that the economy should eclipse the more insidious problem of global warming is like trying to fix the furnace while the house is burning down.
As for public health, a peer-reviewed study by the Natural Resources Defense Council predicts that in America's 40 largest cities, an additional 33,000 people will die from heat-related causes alone over the next four decades if climate change goes unabated. That doesn't count heat-related illness, injuries from natural disasters, or health problems related to air pollution.
The bottom line is this: We should not accept political paralysis on a problem as devastating and irreversible as global climate change, and we should not allow national candidates to ignore the issue during the 2012 campaign. If we expect nothing from our leaders, that is exactly what we'll get.
Bill Becker is the executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.