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What the 2012 US Election Means for Climate Change and Denial

Posted on 15 November 2012 by dana1981

While we at Skeptical Science do not comment on politics, we do from time to time examine what various policymakers believe with regards to climate change, and what they propose to do about the problem.  With the 2012 American election in the books, what does it mean for the future of the global climate?

The Winning Climate Policy

In September we examined the differences between the climate policy positions of the two presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.  In a nutshell, it boiled down to this:

"Our overall verdict is that President Obama's energy policies are good, although his leadership on the climate change been insufficient to take us off the potentially catastrophic climate path.  Romney's plan would not only result in a failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he wants to roll back emissions reduction policies implemented by the Obama Administration.  Mitt Romney's energy policies would not only keep us on our current path, they would stomp on the accelerator, sending us hurtling ever faster towards climate catastrophe."

Thus the fact that Barack Obama won re-election for a second term is good news from a climate policy perspective.  Indeed in his acceptance speech, Obama took the rare step of mentioning climate change.

"We want an America that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."

This is a good sign that President Obama may be willing to tackle this critical issue which has essentially sat on the backburner since the carbon cap and trade bill which passed the House of Representatives was filibustered (blocked and prevented from coming up for a vote) in the Senate in 2010.  Although as we discussed in our post on his climate policy, Obama has taken some smaller but important steps to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions.

Some Improvements in Congress

Is a carbon pricing system feasible in Obama's second term?  This still depends on Congress, which has to pass a bill for the president to sign.  Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and only lost a few seats in the 2012 election.  In the Senate, the Democrat majority shrunk in 2010, increased a bit in 2012, but the Democratic caucus is only likely to include 55 members, whereas 60 votes are required to break a filibuster.  Barring a reform of the filibuster rule (which half of Senators now appear to support to some degree), this will allow Senate Republicans to continue blocking carbon pricing legislation from coming to a vote, if they so choose.  However, at least some Republicans are seriously considering a carbon tax as a revenue source, albeit not those in charge of Congress.

With the impact of Hurricane Sandy and the potential to partially reduce the federal deficit through a carbon tax, a carbon pricing system is more plausible in 2012 than it was in 2010, but is still a very long shot.  Particularly since the president does not plan to propose a carbon tax.

Climate Denial Becomes a Political Liability

However, anti-clean energy and climate denial positions may be increasingly politically damaging in the USA.  For example, the League of Conservation Voters targeted what they deemed the 'dirty dozen' in the 2012 election - candidates in close races who have consistently voted against clean energy and conservation.  At least 10 of those 12 lost their races, and an 11th, Dan Lungren, appears to have been defeated as well.  Mitt Romney was included in the dirty dozen, and his opposition to extending the wind energy tax credit may very well have become a political liability.  He lost Iowa, a state with nearly 20% of its electricity supplied by wind energy and with thousands of wind energy jobs, by six points. 

Climate denial may also become a political liability, with an increasing percentage of Americans understanding the reality of global warming recently - a trend which will likely continue in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  As the latest Yale/George Mason public survey on the subject (in September 2012, prior to Hurricane Sandy) found,

"For the first time since 2008, more than half of Americans (54%) believe global warming is caused mostly by human activities, an increase of 8 points since March 2012. Americans who say it is caused mostly by natural changes in the environment have declined to 30 percent (from 37% in March)."

yale/george mason

Indeed several 'climate hawks' won their elections, and 11 of 12 'climate heroes' candidates won as well.

Election Poll Denial Mirrors Climate Denial

In the lead-up to the 2012 election, there was also a denial regarding the accuracy of polling data and associated conclusions amongst many of the same individuals who deny the accuracy of climate-related data and associated conclusions.  Outlying data which showed convenient results were cherrypicked to support the desired conclusion.  Some went so far as to remove imagined biases from the data to create the desired outcome.  Those who considered all the data were mocked and dismissed, and math and models were labeled as "voodoo", and the sound mathematical basis of their results was outright denied.  The similarities to climate denial are striking.

The difference is that global warming is a relatively slow change, and so it will be many decades before climate denialists are conclusively proven entirely wrong by the increasing temperatures.  Elections on the other hand are one-time short-term events in which predictions are immediately tested.  As it turned out, the data- and model-based predictions were spot on (particularly those of Nate Silver at The New York Times, whose presidential predictions were darn near perfect), whereas the alternative reality and gut-based predictions were conclusively, undeniably, proven very wrong.

The question is whether the denialists will learn anything from this.  As former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum asked,

"Horrible possibility: if the geeks are right about Ohio, might they also be right about climate?"

Of course the answer is 'yes.'  The question is whether those who were conclusively proven wrong in their election data denial will connect the dots to their climate data denial.  As Dave Roberts put it, climate scientists are "the Nate Silvers of climate science."  Will the accuracy of the "geeks" in predicting the election results, in combination with the devastating impacts of Hurricane Sandy, be a wake-up call for climate denialists?

If so, the USA has a shot at taking serious action to address the climate threat.  If not, we will have another four years of steady, but too-slow progress in reducing our emissions.

Also see good posts on these subjects at RealClimate, Climate Progress (here and here), Grist, Huffington Post, and Planet 3.0.

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Comments 1 to 22:

  1. What are the chances that the 2010 carbon cap and trade bill can be resuscitated and passed by the Senate? For that to happen, the Senate would have to agree to relinquish its power to filibuster. Is that likely and if so, are we close to seeing the US adopt a cap and trade scheme?
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  2. Agnostic @1 - I'm not sure, maybe if the Senate reformed the filibuster and then passed the exact same bill as was passed in the House. I think the Senate usually passes its own version and then the House and Senate get together and compromise, but obviously that wouldn't work with Republicans in charge of the House. And I'm not sure if the Senate can pick up a piece of legislation passed by a previous session of the House. Since there's not much talk about this possibility, there are probably legal barriers preventing it.
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  3. @Agnostic #1: The House passed legislation that you refer to is the Waxman-Markey Bill. Unfortunately, it died when that Congress was replaced by the current Congress in 2000. It has absolutely zero standing in the currnet Congress which will in turn be replaced in January with a new Congress.
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  4. @Dana: Given what transpired at today's Presidential news conference, you may want to amend your article. President Obama was asked a question about climate change. His response is contained in the following article: Obama's First Priority: Economy, Not Climate Change by Common Dreams Staff An insightful analysis of the President’s response is contained in: President Obama’s press conference — climate change gets some attention, but enough? by Stephen Stromberg, Washington Post, Nov 14, 2012
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  5. John Hartz @4 - I don't think the reactions to Obama's comments (including the headline) are fair, after reading what he said. He just said taxes should be easy, climate will be hard, and it's going to take bipartisan cooperation, but it's important, etc. I agree with pretty much everything he said.
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  6. The one valid criticism coming from this is that President Obama hasn't and still isn't showing enough leadership on climate change. But that's already noted in the above post.
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  7. John Hartz - thanks for link Looks to me like he really gets it but has become a 'policy realist' the negative comments were carefully worded to minimise offense but whole response quite brave imo. His best shot is to keep up the green job side as much as he can get away with while protecting the environment agency enough to give them room to sort out large emitters. not very democratic but hes dealing with a broken system
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  8. "The question is whether those who were conclusively proven wrong in their election data denial will connect the dots to their climate data denial." Fat chance! They won't even aknowledge their election data denial. Dean Chambers, of unskewedpolls infamy, is running a web poll asking "Was this election stolen by massive Democrat vote fraud?"
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  9. I think it is also important to note that President Obama's almost total silence on Climate Change during the campaign has been attributed to an awareness on the part of the administration that making it an issue would potentially have cost him substantial support in both Ohio and Pennsylvania. Now that his last election is behind him, Obama does not have to be quite as cautious in bringing the topic up. It also helps that nature is continuing to give us signs that even skeptics have trouble sweeping under the denial carpet.
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  10. @Don9000 #9: If a dsicussion of climate change during the Presidential campaign would have garnered more votes for Romney in Ohio and Pennsylvania, you can bet your sweet bibby that Team Romney would have pressed the issue.
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  11. John, Unless I was tuned in to an alternate universe ... To the best of my recollection, Romney did make repeated appearances in coal country in which he embraced coal as a wonderful, special, awesome energy source for the future, and he made this same delusional point rather forcefully in two of the three presidential debates. Note too that Romney did easily win West Virginia, a coal producing state which from 1933 through 1996 was a fairly reliable Democratic state in presidential elections. Thus, I would say that had Obama taken up the issue, Romney would have engaged even more energetically. The other corollary point is that Obama's team appears to have been right in their assessment that their base was more energized than the opposition, and we all know climate change/global warming is like red meat to the Republican base. So why would Obama want to feed the trolls? It's also probably true that people who put global warming at the top of their list of concerns already knew who to vote for without having to hear it talked about on the campaign trail. It certainly motivated my vote for the blue candidate.
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  12. Brad Johnson has some harsh words about President Obama’s statement to place a higher priority on spurring economic recovery than on tackling climate change head-on. Brad Johnson, campaign manager for, an environmental group, said he welcome Obama’s “belated call for a national conversation about how to address climate pollution.” But Johnson said Obama’s assertion that climate change should be secondary to economic concerns was “a gross disappointment and an insult to the deep suffering of the millions of victims of climate disasters across this nation,” including Hurricane Sandy. Obama is scheduled to tour New York City Thursday to view storm damage and recovery efforts. “While conventional D.C. wisdom is focused on the manufactured crisis of the ‘fiscal cliff,’” Johnson said, “the truth is that the most urgent threat to our national safety and economic well-being is the climate cliff that we are already beginning to tumble over.” Source: Obama wants national ‘conversation’ on climate change; no legislation proposed, AP/Washington Post, Nov 14, 2012
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  13. @Don9000: I agree that Romney put coal on a pedastel. That is not the same as overtly challenging Obama's position on climate change. BTW, Obama did not categorically dismiss coal as an unacceptable energy source. If I recall correctly, he spoke positively about "clean coal", i.e., carbon sequestration. In a similar vein, Obama touted his "all of the above" energy policy. He did not qualify "all of the above" by saying "except for coal."
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  14. I'm not sure Obama did call climate change a secondary concern, unless I misread his comments. It seemed to me like he was just saying that addressing the 'fiscal cliff' will be easier than addressing climate change. Plus the 'fiscal cliff' has a specific deadline, on January 1st. We're not going to get anything done on climate change by January 1st. Seems to me like his comments are being blown out of proportion, unless I'm misreading them.
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  15. @dana1981 Many environmental organizations and activists worked their butts off to get Obama re-elected because they knew he accepted the scientific consensus on climate change and the need for the US to reduce carbon emissions. These organizations and individuals have spoken out and will continue to speak out on the need to move forward on the climate change front post haste. Brad Johnson's statement is in this vein.
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  16. I agree John H, I just think it's jumping the gun to criticize President Obama for putting climate change on the backburner just because he plans to focus on the fiscal cliff and its January 1st deadline first. I am all for putting pressure on him to take a climate leadership role, but at the same time if we become overly critical without justification, it may become counter-productive and reduce his motivation to address the problem.
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  17. Dana, I agree with your estimation: IMHO, it's yet another case of those who expect--and expected, in 2008--for Obama to miraculously just wave some kind of pixie dust wand, and *allllll* their pet wishes would become true. Sure, we ALL would like the POTUS to instantly grant us the magic ponies we want (and on both sides, there are puh-lenty who demand magic ponies!), but the exigent reality is, the financials of the country have to come first, if only by degree. I say let's see how the fiscal cliffiness works out, then we can begin bangin' away on Obama, to pay more attention to CC: my guess is, he will.
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  18. John H @ 13 I'm not disagreeing that we need to act as soon as possible, and act in a massive way. I am hoping that Obama does engage with global warming, and I think dealing with it is the real way to begin to fix our nation's serious and systemic economic problems, but I also think he needs to start with something along the lines of a national climate change conference in which our side calls in its experts, by the hundreds if not thousands (which he seems to be moving toward), and the other side calls in their experts, such as they are, and over the course of several months or more the evidence is piled up on the scales and then weighed at the end. I do think he needs to let the other side have a spot at the table. I'll take Hansen over Watt any day. Without this kind of formal dog and pony show, any attempt on Obama's part to take action--say by proposing a carbon tax, which I think is the key thing that needs to be put in place, will be questioned by the people on the other side not just because they hate taxes, but because of the fact that the UN is the organization that stands behind the IPCC reports which will inevitably be referenced. Most hard-core Republicans (and these are not just the deniers) do not like, do not trust, and will not listen to anything with the UN's imprimatur on it, at least as far as I've seen to date. There is also another serious danger: it would be a tragic mistake for Obama to try to act too soon or with too weak a hand, and because of this then fail to push us to where we need to go. If that happens, he could end up exhausting his strength in Congress and walk away from the fray with some weak, half-baked steps that only appear to help, but in fact will haunt us when they prevent further steps from being taken. I'd rather have him spend the next four years, if that's what it takes, to lay the solid groundwork for the right course of action, than put in a shoddy foundation that screws things up for the next decade or more. Remember, this is the same country that needed Pearl Harbor to happen before we were effectively dragged into WWII, and I'm not sure we would have even managed to go to war with Germany at that point if Hitler hadn't declared war on us first. My guess is that on the subject of climate change, there are a lot more America First-types around now than there were when it was the Nazis we were worried about.
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  19. Perhaps now out of date, but this article explains Obama's deliberate decision not to talk about climate during the first term: During the election, I think that Obama's realistic focus on climate was a huge advantage to him, post-Sandy. I don't think that Obama won on climate. I do think Romney lost on climate. Given his strategy of not mentioning climate, I think that Obama actually delivered a lot in his first term - decelerating rates of GHG emissions, better emissions standards for vehicles, and fiscal incentives for clean energy investment. I hope that he will now decide that real US and international action on climate issues would be recognised internationally as a lasting, priceless legacy. More interesting, in my opinion, is the effect on the deniers. Reading through the comments especially on several denier sites in the aftermath of the election, it became very clear that the prime motivation of many of the regulars is entirely political. But they are apparently a political liability. How much are these brave Galileos prepared to go on challenging the views of not just the science community, but also the vast majority of the business community, the media and the defence establishment? This to support some extreme right wing politicians, whose electoral chances appear to be severely damaged by association with these views? How does that work? If you are a GOP candidate, who would you rather have in your corner, agreeing with you on climate change, EITHER the scientists, the Pentagon, Wall Street, and the media, OR Anthony Watts, Judith Curry and the Koch Bros?
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  20. Speaking of Judith Curry, she has been included on a Dutch government initiative to get a 'full range of views' on climate science via a website '', where she has written her views on the decline of arctic sea ice. Not surprisingly, she finds a lot of 'uncertainty' in the conclusions.
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  21. "Speaking of Judith Curry, she has been included on a Dutch government initiative to get a 'full range of views' on climate science via...'', where she has written her views on the decline of arctic sea ice." Indeed, and, like others here and elsewhere, I was concerned that CD.o would be just another lame attempt at 'false balance,' i.e., another Intertubes 'tone troll,' of sorts. Reading along with it, it seems not to be so much: Curry's assertions of "uncertainties abound" have been met with robust data, well-spoken and *decidedly* non-ad hominem comments, from real scientists in the matter. I have hope for CD.o!
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  22. Re, my comment at 21? Stay tuned....I may well be changing my tune on my prior opinion of CD.o.
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