Has the Environment Become a Non-Issue in the 2012 Presidential Race?

Drilling in the Arctic. Shale-gas fracking from New York to Texas. The earth heating up. And Obama and Romney nowhere to be found. 

 Apart from a few jabs here and there over the Keystone XL oil pipeline, this election season Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would rather talk about the economy than the environment.

“It’s pretty clear that there’s been a conscious decision on both sides not to engage with these issues this year,” says Robert J. Brulle, currently a fellow at Stanford and a professor at Drexel University who studies environmental politics and media effects.

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Elections haven’t always been so greenless. Back in 2008 rising awareness about climate change pushed both Obama and John McCain to thoughtfully engage in a conversation about our warming planet—including in this magazine (see “Face-Off," September-October 2008). This time around, however, with the U.S. economy still wheezing, many Americans seem to have tuned out. A Gallup poll from 2012, for example, found that Americans’ worries about air and drinking water pollution had fallen to their lowest point in decades. Such polls, explains Brulle, have likely led candidates to steer away from topics like climate. And green groups, for their part, have struggled to find a coherent, compelling message to rally voters. When influential figures aren’t talking about green issues, media coverage tends to drop, too. “It’s a self-reinforcing cycle,” Brulle says.

Still, experts from across the political spectrum agree that the next president will face a variety of challenges—deciding whether to expand regulations on carbon dioxide, for instance, or dealing with the boom in shale-gas fracking. So there’s a lot at stake in this election, whether the candidates want to acknowledge it or not.

Consider, for instance, today’s transcendent issue: global warming. (July was the hottest month on record in the United States.) Many scientists increasingly warn that the world won’t be able to curb greenhouse gases quickly enough to prevent a 2-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures, which might already be enough to raise sea level off of New York City, Boston, and Washington, D.C., a few feet by 2100. Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, told Reuters that missing that goal “would have devastating consequences for the planet.” 

In the past six years the United States has made mixed progress. True, a major climate bill, backed halfheartedly by Obama, died in the Senate in 2010. Yet the country has still managed to cut its carbon emissions by 7.7 percent since 2006, according to the International Energy Agency—more than any other country in the world. That was partly due to the recession and a flood of cheap natural gas that’s displacing dirty old coal plants. But the progress also resulted from the growth in renewable energy and new efficiency habits—Americans are driving less, for one. Meanwhile, under Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has gone even further. For example, the agency has proposed rules that would make it impossible to build traditional coal-fired power plants, and has crafted fuel-economy standards that will require cars and light trucks to average 54.5 miles per gallon by model year 2025, up from 35.5 miles per gallon expected for 2016 vehicles.

Yet many of these moves have come under heavy criticism from Romney, Congress, and industry groups, which means the next president will face intense pressure to maintain the status quo. Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, notes that the EPA may face a decision whether to regulate carbon emissions from oil refineries and existing power plants next year. “There are some major and controversial things on the agenda,” O’Donnell notes. What’s more, whoever lands in the White House will face the task of reviving international climate talks, which have deadlocked in recent years.

Granted, prevention is just part of it. Climate change is already happening, and there’s growing evidence that it’s linked to extreme weather events like drought. That poses dilemmas for both people and the natural world. For instance, Audubon data suggests that nearly 60 percent of the 305 bird species commonly found in North America during the winter have shifted their ranges in the past four decades as average annual temperatures have risen. Populations of such well-known birds as common terns and evening grosbeaks are already declining, and climate change aggravates the threats they face. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2010 “State of the Birds” report found that the majority of birds dependent on oceans are highly vulnerable to climate change. Is this something that government should address? Adaptation questions like these are likely to become harder to ignore in the next four years. 

A related issue: Renewable-energy sources, including wind and solar, are at a crossroads. The 2009 stimulus bill will mean $51 billion over five years for clean technology. While some of the projects didn’t pan out—most notoriously Solyndra, the now-bankrupt solar-panel maker that Romney and other Republicans are making political hay of—there’s evidence that the wind and solar industries have benefited from tax credits. The cost of solar photovoltaic systems, for instance, dropped in half, from $7.20 per watt in 2007 to $3.47 per watt in 2011, although the price of solar energy is still generally higher than the price of conventionally produced electricity. The cost of new wind turbines fell 27 percent from 2008 to 2011, with wind now able to compete with natural gas in a few select locations. Yet many of these subsidies and other supportive policies have already expired or will soon end, setting the stage for the next Congress and president to decide whether to keep nurturing renewable energy.

Then there are old-fashioned fossil fuels. In the past decade, as gasoline prices have soared, many politicians have called for opening up new areas for drilling, including the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off the Alaskan coast and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Romney supports drilling in both; Obama opposes it in the refuge.) Meanwhile, the oil industry is pushing for more production on federal lands—even as there’s been a boom in drilling for “tight oil” from shale rock on private and state lands.


The next president will have to strike a balance. For example, as Audubon went to press the Interior Department was expected to make a final call on whether to allow Shell to drill for oil in the biologically rich Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Recent reports, including one last year from the U.S. Geological Survey, have warned that there’s great uncertainty about how drilling (and possible spills) could affect the area’s wildlife and habitat. As such, in January nearly 600 scientists urged President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to put off a final decision until further research could be carried out. And in July Audubon and nine other environmental groups sued the Interior Department, arguing it had violated the Clean Water Act by failing to ensure that Shell could address a “worst case oil spill.”

There’s also the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry diluted bitumen from the tar sands of Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries. A March Gallup poll showed that a majority of Americans thought the government should approve the pipeline. Yet oil from the tar sands is also filthier than conventional crude—emitting up to 20 percent more lifecycle greenhouse gases, on average, than other transportation fuels used in the United States, according to the Congressional Research Service—and requires clearing huge swaths of Alberta’s vast boreal forests, a breeding ground for tens of millions of birds. For now the Obama administration has postponed approval of the pipeline, citing, among other concerns, water contamination (the proposed pipeline also would have run through sandhill and whooping crane habitat in Nebraska). But the next White House occupant will have to give a final thumbs up or down. (Romney says he’d approve the pipeline on day one.)

If that’s not enough, there’s the raging issue of shale-gas fracking. New technology has allowed drillers nationwide to fracture shale rock and extract natural gas. Each year thousands of new wells are being punched into the ground. In some states, including Pennsylvania, fears persist that the chemicals used could seep into local water supplies. The drilling process also causes air pollution. And in northeast Ohio wastewater disposal from drilling activities has been linked to earthquakes. The next administration will likely face calls to resolve these problems. Kenneth Green, an energy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, says that there’s a growing divide on shale-gas fracking. Many liberals would prefer that the EPA regulate fracking, he says, while Romney and many conservatives prefer to leave oversight to the states, which would speed up drilling. 

These issues—and others—may well consume, perhaps even devour, the next president’s time. So it’s inexcusable that neither candidate will talk about them. Some matters are too important to be left to pollsters.