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Climate change: why it could be a hot topic on the campaign trail

Climate change had been virtually absent from the campaign until Mitt Romney and President Obama traded jabs at their conventions. Some polls say it could be a vote-getter for Democrats.

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Be that as it may, Obama and his campaign would be unlikely to be so undisciplined as to get into a national high-profile fight over climate policy if he were going to lose credibility with a public more hungry for jobs than fixing global warming.

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But what if climate change turned out to be a good issue – not a boat anchor? That's exactly what public opinion researchers at George Mason, Yale, and Stanford universities have been finding in national polls last year and this year.

In a nonpartisan national poll released by George Mason and Yale in March, 72 percent of Americans surveyed said global warming should be a very high (12 percent), high (28 percent), or medium (32 percent) priority for the president and Congress. Among registered voters, 84 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents, and 52 percent of Republicans said global warming should be a priority.

What those and other numbers mean, says the man who analyzed them, is that Obama and other Democratic candidates, instead of paying a political penalty for hitting global warming as an issue on the campaign trail – actually benefit.

"Our polling shows that in swing states, Democratic candidates who take a pro-climate-action stance will find it to be a vote winner for them," says Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University in Virginia, who produced the poll. "The extra votes will come from independents."

Unfortunately for Romney, even if he were to win support among independents by raising global warming as a problem to deal with, it would weaken support among his conservative base, researchers say.

"Independents respond to climate change as an issue much more like Democrats than Republicans," he says. "But for a Republican candidate, taking a pro-climate action station in a general election campaign is neutral impact – winning independent votes, but losing some conservative support."

Similarly large numbers support renewable energy development as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb global warming, a point that Obama also hammered in his speech.

Even before his acceptance speech there were signs Obama was warming to the idea of talking about climate change once again. In Iowa, where climate-friendly wind-turbine manufacturing is big business, Obama has hammered Romney for opposing tax credits that would help keep factories open. And in three college appearances in recent weeks, the president has highlighted global warming to those audiences, which polls show are quite receptive to that message, Romm says.

For his part, Romney has since the Tampa convention repeated his applause line while stumping for votes. And he and Obama squared off in an on-line matchup on climate change on the Science Debate website on Tuesday. So now it seems, climate change may well be headed back onto the menu for political debate this fall.

"I don't know what the president or his advisers' thoughts were about the issue, but one thing is certain, the president had not been talking about issue of climate change publicly in quite some time," Dr. Maibach says. "Now he seems ready to speak out again about it. Maybe he saw some of our results and realized talking about global warming was a good idea."

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