What the 2012 US Election Means for Climate Change and Denial

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.

Posted by dana1981 on Thursday, 15 November, 2012

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