Why climate change isn't much of a campaign issue

When an economy is in the tank, it’s a lot tougher to sell what may be expensive environmental solutions whose benefits aren't seen for decades to people worried about their job today.

David Smith/AP
West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin (D), signs autographs following his senatorial campaign rally in Morgantown, W.Va. on Monday, Oct. 11. He's running against cap-and-trade as a remedy for climate change.

Coming into this year, conventional wisdom had it that if Democrats failed to get an energy and climate bill passed by this summer, a new attempt would have to wait until at least 2011.

Think longer-term than that. Maybe a lot longer.

In his most recent reading of the political tea leaves, published Oct. 8, noted analyst Charles Cook of the Cook Political Report sees Republicans in the House picking up at least 40 seats – with 39 needed to take the majority.

A headline on the Associated Press's latest analysis? "As Democrats' message lags, GOP awaits huge wins."

And not just at the national level. In a hard Senate fight in West Virginia, Democratic Governor Joe Manchin is running as fast as possible from any association with the concept of a cap-and-trade bill to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. In a campaign ad, Manchin literally fires a shot at the bill. Other Democrats are downplaying (or remaining silent on) climate change as a campaign issue.

Meanwhile, GOP candidates – incumbents and challengers – are lauding the benefits of carbon dioxide for creatures great and small, attributing global warming to sunspots (long discredited), and in general touting the notion of human-triggered global warming as a hoax.

Ironically, they seem to be out of step with much of the American public. In a new survey released by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 63 percent of Americans agree that global warming is happening. A plurality (50 percent) agree that it's triggered by human activity, compared with 35 percent who say it's natural, and 7 percent who say it isn't happening at all.

The survey, conducted from late June to late July included 2,030 adults in the US.

From the standpoint of solutions, large majorities agree that switching to green energy sources, preventing deforestation and other approaches would reduce global warming. But the study points out a majority of respondents (53 percent) either don't believe that large tax increases on fossil fuels would help, or they say they don't know.

And therein lies a great deal of the rub, according to the Council on Foreign Relations' Michael Levi. In a blog post earlier this year, he noted in effect that once again, "it's the economy, stupid."

Especially in lean economic times, a cap-and-trade bill (Republicans have dubbed it the Pelosi energy tax) designed to shift the economy to greener energy technologies injects too much uncertainty into the calculations of people who have jobs.

The switch by definition implies that some existing jobs will vanish. The thought of losing those jobs would be bad enough in economically good years. But when the unemployment rate hovers between 9 and 10 percent, and economic growth is expected to be anemic for some time? A double no-thanks on all your proposals.

And those who are unemployed and might benefit from the change are a smaller, less influential slice of the electorate.

If that's the case, the US currently may be experiencing in its own way an internal version of the arguments that have played out on the international stage between rich and poor countries on battling global warming.

When an economy is in the tank, either because of a near-depression or because a country is underdeveloped, it’s a lot tougher to sell what are perceived to be expensive environmental solutions whose benefits may not be seen for decades to individuals who are worried about their job today.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.