As the campaign season for the 2012 elections nears its final hour, a look backward shows that the environment did not make its way onto the list of important topics of debate. Actually, environmental issues hardly came up at all as both candidates focused more on economic plans for the country. In discerning why sustainability got the short end of the stick this time around, there is a tendency to draw the conclusion that Americans don’t think about the environment or even that Americans simply don’t care. A look at the dynamic of this election cycle and the current economic backdrop points to the low profile of environmental issues as an intentional, and perhaps unsurprising move by both presidential hopefuls.
It’s Not Denial
Despite the fact that our would-be presidents are not taking the opportunity to talk about the environment, discourse on environmental issues is actually running through the country with some considerable strength. Coming off of a summer or record-setting temperatures and droughts (that followed a notably mild winter), a recent poll put 74% of Americans agree that climate change is affecting weather patterns in the U.S. Conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, the study also found that the majority believes that climate change made the summer’s weather events worse. Midwesterners were responsible for some of the largest percentage swings for a change of heart on climate change as heat waves and droughts hung over the middle of the country for most of the summer.
Though many of us may still not completely understand it, there are less of us trying to deny the existence of environmental problems. Moreover, with the same study showing that 1 in 5 Americans claim they suffered harm to their health, property, and/or finances from an extreme heat wave in the past year, it is not that people don’t care.
The Precarious Ground of Swing States
With a political race that continues to get closer in the polls, the swing states become crucial to a path to victory for these candidates. In this cycle’s spread the employment effects of a more sustainable country weigh heavily on the states that are still on the fence.
Nevada: President Obama was a champion of nuclear energy at the start of his presidency, but the frontrunner for finding a national storage facility for nuclear waste was Yucca Mountain in Nevada. This process was derailed due to the effort being blocked by the state’s Senator, Harry Reid. When it comes to nuclear energy, the lack of a waste storage option is the 800 pound gorilla in the room (that’s if you can get past the high cost of construction) and everyone knows it. Bringing up clean energy or specifically nuclear also opens the door for Governor Romney to point at the fact that the President has people in his own party dissenting on the issue.
Virginia + Ohio: Coal states. Both of these states are home to the mining of coal and facilities that burn it for power. Low natural gas prices have squeezed coal’s ability to operate as the low-cost fuel for power production, follow by the fact that Obama’s administration has already wielded the EPA to levy new emission regulations on coal fired power plants. Things like clean energy, water and air quality or hazardous waste management are all thorns in the side of coal producers so if the President can avoid aggravating those voters then he will for now. For as much as Romney wanted to cozy up with coal states, the presidential debate pointed to his stance on coal being formulated only around convenience given that he stood against coal as a governor. They would both rather stay away from it.
Iowa: They grow a lot of corn in Iowa and make a lot of ethanol. A debate about gasoline prices and cleaner fuel could veer into the topic of how we spend too much money and valuable farmland producing corn for ethanol—something that Iowa doesn’t want to hear. It’s true that Iowa is waist deep in wind turbines, sitting among the top wind energy producers in the country so Romney can’t appeal to them with his homage to the fossil fuel trifecta, but Obama does not really want to talk about subsidies for clean energy companies—a step away from arguments about companies like Solyndra and A123. Both candidates have silently agreed that a cease fire on this issue serves them better.
Preaching to the Choir vs. Nothing to Say
Another facet of this election is the question of how much either candidate stands to gain from talking about the environment. Would it really do anything for either party in attracting more votes? Governor Romney has no history of environmental fortitude and support. To secure support in the Republican primary he bought into the position that questions climate change. He has made no effort to even suggest that his presidency would be good for the environment. Environmentalists know this.
President Obama, on the other hand, has a good track record on environmental measures including funding for clean energy, improvements in fuel economy and better emissions regulations from the EPA. But who is he going to convince that he is a better environmental option than Romney who is not already convinced? Better yet, who out there still thinks that Romney will provide more environmental support if elected? While sustainability advocates (like myself) would like to see these issues aired in the national stage of the election cycle, the truth is that Obama would only be preaching to the choir of votes that he already has. Anyone who is voting with the environment as an important issue will find a hard time supporting Governor Romney. Why would either of these candidates want to rock the boat?
History has shown us that it is difficult to keep environmental issues in focus during a down economy. It is harder to push for environmental support when many Americans are still struggling to find work. It comes as no surprise that candidates in a presidential election will make every effort to avoid telling voters anything that they don’t want to hear. But just because we can understand why the issues were not raised doesn’t mean that it is what we should be demanding. Other important issues didn’t make the cut as well. Bryan Walsh from Time Magazine said it well:
“…the job of a leader — or someone who is applying to become a leader — should involve telling the occasional difficult, even inconvenient truth. That’s been missing in this campaign.”
Image Credits: politico.com