Feb 1 2011

It’s the Politics, Stupid

Ask not what elections will do for climate change

climate-changeOf all the issues at stake in the midterm congressional elections of 2010, the one that hung most in the balance may have been the fate of the world’s climate. It was clear from early in the election cycle that incoming Republicans were uniformly in agreement that no government action to control carbon emissions was desirable, or indeed necessary: Of Republican Senate candidates, “19 of the 20 who have taken a position say that global climate change is unproven or actually a hoax,” the National Journal’s Ron Brownstein said on ABC’s This Week (9/26/10).

Several prominent GOP leaders had gone even further: Soon-to-be House speaker John Boehner declared that “the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen, that it is harmful to our environment, is almost comical,” while Rep. John Shimkus, a contender for chair of the House Energy Committee, brushed off fears of climate disaster by citing the Bible’s promise that “as long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (New Yorker, 11/22/10).

For one of the world’s leading carbon emitters to have politicians in power who—against the conclusions of virtually every climate scientist in the world—deny that human activity is causing global temperatures to rise could have a tremendous impact on the fate of human society. The International Energy Agency estimated in its 2010 World Energy Outlook that each year of delay on climate action now adds about a trillion dollars to the cost of staving off ecological catastrophe.

“I think it’s safe to say that the chance of stabilizing below 2° [of increased global temperature in Celsius] is pretty low now,” says climate expert Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress. “The science is pretty clear that we’re getting to a point of no return, particularly the risk posed to the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets”—which are both projected to begin irreversibly melting when atmospheric carbon reaches between 450 and 550 parts per million. (About 280 ppm before the industrial revolution, CO2 has risen from 320 to 390 ppm in the last 50 years.)

You would have learned this from blogs like Romm’s Climate Progress, but not from daily newspapers or the nightly news. Instead, while major news outlets occasionally mentioned what climate change controversy might mean for the elections, they almost never addressed what the elections would mean for the climate.

The Los Angeles Times (10/27/10), for example, asserted that in much of the nation, “‘cap and trade’ has become a dirty phrase this election season, and the political storm over global warming’s causes and solutions may determine several key races.”

When it came to taking a closer look at that storm, though, the news media largely shied away, even when it meant soft-pedaling the views of some candidates. When Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ron Johnson declared that extreme weather was “far more likely…just sunspot activity or just something in the geologic eons of time” than a result of climate change, because excess CO2 “gets sucked down by trees and helps the trees grow,” the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (8/17/10) described this as “uncompromising views on climate change” that counter what “many scientists believe”—though they’d be hard-pressed to find any scientists at all who believe that sunspots cause global warming (Independent, 4/27/09, 12/14/09).

After the election results were in, the drumbeat continued: Politico (11/3/10) observed that “Democrats who voted for the controversial House climate bill were slaughtered at the ballot box.” The site quoted Linda Stuntz—whom it cited as a former Bush energy official and current “industry attorney” (according to Sourcewatch, she lobbied for electricity giant Xcel Energy)—as saying of climate legislation, “I don’t think any of these guys are ever going to touch it again.”

Yet both polls and election results show little sign that support for climate action was an albatross for candidates. An election-night poll found only 1 percent of Republican voters named energy or climate policies as their biggest concern about the Democratic candidate (Climate Progress, 11/3/10). And Bryan Walsh of Ecocentric (11/3/10) noted that “Democrats who voted against cap-and-trade were three times more likely to lose than those who voted for it”—something he connected with the generally dismal showing by conservative Blue Dog Democrats—and “no Republican who voted in favor of cap-and-trade lost their reelection battles.”

Meanwhile, as for what was at stake—why anyone was talking about climate legislation to begin with—most media remained entirely silent. In “Does This Election Matter?,” a segment listing “key issues” at stake, CNN’s Ali Velshi (10/25/10) included the economy, markets, houses, jobs, taxes and healthcare—but never climate. NPR (10/4/10), in its segment considering “what’s at stake in these midterm elections,” only briefly mentioned a “comprehensive energy bill” as one unfinished item on Obama’s agenda.

Even in articles ostensibly designed to discuss the controversy, details were hard to come by. The Los Angeles Times (10/27/10) summed up the case advocates make for carbon regulation by saying it “would help create ‘green’ jobs, spur investment in alternative energy sources and reduce reliance on foreign oil”—no mention of the benefits of forestalling global disaster.

The New York Times (10/21/10) noted that “skepticism and outright denial of global warming are among the articles of faith of the Tea Party movement,” which it said was wary of Obama’s designs on regulating carbon dioxide, a “ubiquitous gas.” “If dozens of new Republican climate skeptics are swept into Congress,” the Times continued, “the prospects for assertive federal action to control global warming gases, including regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency, will grow dimmer than they already are.” As for what the climate consequences of this would be, though, the Times didn’t say.

To find more informative reporting on the meaning of U.S. elections, one merely needed to leave the country. Agence France Presse (10/27/10), after noting that “climate efforts are facing attack across the United States during the election, likely making prospects for action by Congress even bleaker,” went on to report that “UN scientists in 2007 found that climate change was already hurting the planet and warned of rising natural disasters without action. Three years later, some experts link climate change to floods that ravaged Pakistan.”

Despite the grim predictions, many analysts insisted on seeing the glass as half-full: “Compromise isn’t off the table,” asserted Newsweek (11/1/10). “While still skeptical of climate change, Republicans have been warming to the idea of energy independence in recent years.”

Yet as Time’s Ecocentric blog (11/3/10) pointed out, “Aside from ever more aid for nuclear power plants, and small programs on energy efficiency that no one can really oppose, there’s no obvious areas for bipartisan cooperation on energy—let alone climate change.”

Romm holds out hope that something can stave off disaster, perhaps Chinese efforts to develop clean technology or a World War II-scale effort to remake First World industry, possibly after climate-induced changes like this year’s Russian heat wave or floods in Pakistan hit Western nations: “No one can say that it’s hopeless—it’s unlikely, but unlikelier things have happened.”

But as Elizabeth Kolbert, a veteran climate reporter and author of the book Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006), summed it up in a post-election report for the New Yorker (11/22/10): “It may seem that we’ll just keep going around and around on climate change forever. Unfortunately, that’s not the case: One day, perhaps not very long from now, the situation will spin out of our control.”

Neil deMause is a frequent contributor to Extra! and a contributing editor for City Limits magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @neildemause.