by Christopher Flavin

Four years is a long time in U.S. politics. During the 2008 presidential election campaign, the two candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, both claimed to be the most committed to addressing climate change and implementing an emissions trading system across the United States. That year, hardly a week went by without either Obama or McCain, and sometimes both, standing in front of a wind turbine or solar factory and calling for the creation of green industries and jobs.

With the 2012 election now just a few days away, the politics of climate and energy have been transformed, and not for the better. In fact, the word “climate” has hardly been mentioned by either candidate; the most notable exception was the Republican convention in September when candidate Mitt Romney ridiculed Obama for “promising to hold back the seas” when Americans were focused on holding onto their jobs. (The well-heeled partisans in the audience responded with laughter.)

The turning point in the U.S. climate wars came in 2010 when the Congress (then controlled by Democrats) failed to pass the “cap and trade” legislation that Obama had championed. The problem in part was that many Republicans had turned vehemently against action on climate change in response to the fact that the President they resented was supporting it. But even the Democratic Party was split on the issue, worn out by the debate over health care legislation and concerned about potential job losses in the states where coal mining is still a significant employer.

The irony is that apart from the failed cap and trade legislation, President Obama has a pretty good record on climate and energy. During his first term, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have fallen 10%, and are now nearly back to the 1990 level, oil imports have declined 32%, wind power has more than doubled, and solar energy has jumped seven-fold—energy achievements that dwarf those of any U.S. President in modern times.

To be sure, President Obama is not solely responsible for these historic shifts in U.S. energy trends, but his policies are pushing the country in the right direction: he has increased fuel economy standards for automobiles by 55 percent, issued new standards for greenhouse gas emissions for power plants, and spent billions of dollars of government funds to strengthen the U.S. solar, wind, biomass, and battery industries.

Mitt Romney meanwhile has backed away from his solid support for climate action when he was governor of Massachusetts, and now only begrudgingly admits the scientific consensus that climate change is a real threat. In his campaign speeches, Romney rhapsodizes about America’s great abundance of coal, oil, and natural gas, promising to dismantle the barriers to their extraction that President Obama has supposedly erected. Obama responds that he is in favor of an “all of the above” energy strategy, by which he means increasing the extraction of fossil fuels while also expanding the country’s use of renewable energy.

It’s been a dispiriting election season to say the least. And ironically, it comes in a year when a historic drought devastated food production in the United States, and the unprecedented superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on some of the largest cities on the East Coast.


A submerged New York Subway station in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.

It’s time for America to wake up to the need for a much stronger energy and climate policy. Without it, the United States will suffer the impending ravages of climate change while failing to realize the economic opportunities presented by a booming world market in green energy.
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Christopher Flavin is climate and energy expert and the President Emeritus of Worldwatch Institute.