Is climate change just a joke to the GOP?

August 31, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

Folks are going to be talking a lot about last night’s appearance by Clint Eastwood at the closing of the Republican National Convention, but as I watched events unfold, the really remarkable moment was when GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney started off this sentence:

President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans …

Governor Romney paused, to allow laughter to spread through the convention hall. Then he finished his line:

… And to heal the planet. MY promise is to help you and your family.

Over at Climate Progress, Joe Romm cited this reader comment from TPM, which pretty much nailed it:

This is obviously meant to portray Obama as grandiose and foolish, making wild promises he can’t keep —- about things that don’t matter to people.

However, it creates an odd distinction, as if the health of the planet and help for one’s family are different altogether and one’s family will do well even if the planet is doing poorly. Meanwhile, this summer, families in Colorado have lost their homes to fire and families through the Midwest have suffered intense heat and farmers’ crops have failed. Belief that global warming is happening has increased.

If the Obama people were to take this comment seriously, not just ignore or dismiss it as a nasty crack, but take it seriously as a policy matter, they really could have a winning issue in some swing states.

In West Virginia? Well, we’re hardly a swing state anymore. Though it is interesting to look at the poll published today by the Daily Mail, and realize that Governor Romney’s margin over President Obama (14 percentage points) is not that much more than Sen. John McCain’s victory margin in 2008 (13 percentage points). The Daily Mail has 10 percent of those polled in West Virginia as undecided — and that’s after more than three years of the coal industry’s PR machine, with more than a little help from most of West Virginia’s media outlets.

But keep in mind that it’s partly the refusal of many in industry and politics to accept and act on the science of climate change that has efforts to perfect and deploy carbon capture and storage technology — the only real savior for the coal industry — so woefully behind the pace needed to both protect the planet and rescue coal jobs.

And not for nothing, but that four-letter word “coal” got only one very brief mention in Governor Romney’s speech, when he was running down a list of things he says President Obama is doing wrong:

His assault on coal and gas and oil will send energy and manufacturing jobs to China.

Of course, one of the more interesting things about what Governor Romney said last night is how starkly it contrasts with what he did when he was governor in Massachusetts. As the L.A. Times explained not long ago:

During his first 18 months as governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney spent considerable time hammering out a sweeping climate change plan to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

As staff briefed him on possible measures and environmentalists pressed him to act, Romney frequently repeated a central thought, people at those meetings said: That climate change is occurring, that the United States has the resources to handle its vast impact but that low-lying poor countries like Bangladesh would suffer greatly.

“It was like a mantra with him,” said a person who attended those meetings who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic. “His Cabinet members would look at him like, ‘What?’ He was the radical in the room.”

So has something legitimately convinced Governor Romney to change his mind? Or is he just pandering to the anti-science crowd who a laugh from even thinking about how human activity is changing the planet’s climate and that perhaps something should be done about that?

Well, Grist points out this interesting tidbit:

This was the speech immediately before the balloon drop, his primary sales pitch to undecided voters who hadn’t yet made up their minds. The quote was one of a few key passages Romney released to the press beforehand — one of the points the campaign thought were most important to get into newspaper articles before papers went to print.

And The Washington Post’s Wonkblog earlier had explained what this year’s GOP convention did to the party’s platform regarding climate change:

Over the past four years, the Republican Party has undergone a fairly dramatic shift in its approach to energy and environmental issues. Global warming has disappeared entirely from the party’s list of concerns. Clean energy has become an afterthought. Fossil fuels loom larger than ever.

Four years ago, this is what the GOP platform said about climate change:

The same human economic activity that has brought freedom and opportunity to billions has also increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. While the scope and longterm consequences of this are the subject of ongoing scientific research, common sense dictates that the United States should take measured and reasonable steps today to reduce any impact on the environment. Those steps, if consistent with our global competitiveness will also be good for our national security, our energy independence, and our economy.

Now? Wonkblog explains:

Skip ahead to 2012, and the GOP platform takes a markedly different tone. That section devoted to climate change? Gone. Instead, the platform flatly opposes ”any and all cap and trade legislation” to curtail greenhouse gases. It demands that Congress “take quick action to prohibit the EPA from moving forward with new greenhouse gas regulations.” It criticizes the Obama administration’s National Security Strategy for ”elevat[ing] ‘climate change’ to the level of a ‘severe threat’ equivalent to foreign aggression.” The platform even tosses in what appears to be a subtle swipe at climate scientists:

Moreover, the advance of science and technology advances environmentalism as well. Science allows us to weigh the costs and benefits of a policy so that we can prudently deal with our resources. This is especially important when the causes and long-range effects of a phenomenon are uncertain. We must restore scientific integrity to our public research institutions and remove political incentives from publicly funded research. [Emphasis added]

Governor Romney’s speech was referring back to remarks now-President Obama made in 2008, the night he wrapped up the Democratic nomination:

… If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal …

Speaking of four years ago, Grist noted:

That year, Mitt Romney was also running for president, though his campaign had ended by the time Obama gave that speech. During that campaign in 2008, Romney admitted that climate change was occurring, and that humans were contributing to it. But Romney lost.

So now, Mitt Romney derides the scientific fact of climate change as he finds better political success in the Republican primary.

And just to be clear on one thing, here’s the latest science, via Climate Central, about rising sea levels:

A new analysis released Thursday in the journal Science implies that the seas could rise dramatically higher over the next few centuries than scientists previously thought — somewhere between 18-to-29 feet above current levels, rather than the 13-to-20 feet they were talking about just a few years ago.

The increase in sea level would largely come from the partial melting of giant ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica, which have remained largely intact since the end of the last ice age, nearly 20,000 years ago. But rising global temperatures, thanks to human greenhouse-gas emissions, have already begun to melt that ancient ice, sending sea level up 8 inches since 1880 alone, with as much as 6 feet or so of additional increase projected by 2100.

That’s not enough to inundate major population centers by itself, but coupled with storm surges, it could threaten millions of Americans long before the century ends. Around the world, sea level rise will put trillions in property at risk within the next few decades.

Twenty-nine feet of sea-level rise, by contrast, or even 18, would put hundreds coastal cities around the globe entirely under water, displacing many hundreds of millions of people and destroying untold trillions in property. It would, in short, be a disaster of unimaginable proportions.

Joe Romm concluded his commentary on Governor Romney’s statements on President Obama and climate change this way:

One can mock Obama for not doing enough to keep this important promise, but not for making it in the first place.

Chris Hayes on MSNBC rightly says the audience laughter at the whole notion of fighting sea level rise will some day “be in documentaries as a moment of just ‘what-were-they-thinking’ madness.” Hear! Hear!

7 Responses to “Is climate change just a joke to the GOP?”

  1. Forrest Roles says:

    Ken,
    You missed the point of the Romney reference to rising sea levels and “healing the earth.” He was referring to the abject failure of this administration to do anything useful towards the only real hope of climate change progress – a worldwide agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The President was a failure at Copenhagen and didn’t even try at Rio. His climate change promises of progress have been wholly unfulfilled like many of his other promises comprising the “hope and change” program.
    Romney is no global warming denier. http://hotlineoncall.nationaljournal.com/archives/2011/06/romney-climate.php. However, he has no plans to cause serious, useless harm to the US economy as Obama’s renegade EPA has sought to do in the name of climate change. With him, those who believe that substantial reductions in CO2 emission are critically need now, have a hope of international leadership accomplishing effective reductions. Mr. Obama’s performance belies any such hope from an additional four years of his administration’s failure, which in this regard, have worsened with the passage of time.
    Forrest

  2. thomas morrison says:

    The U.S. could quit using fossil fuel altogether which would cause a depression worse than the Great One. However, climate warming will still occur because the U.S. emits only a fraction (about 16%) of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and it is possible there is also a natural climate change. China “PROMISES” to spend billions to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions but at the same time it builds many coal fired power plants. The net effect, if it does as promised, is China will continue to be the worlds’s leading polluter emitting about 30% of the world total. The other nations cannot afford to spend billions to reduce their emissions.
    But neither can the U.S. which goes in debt a trillion dollars more each year and the economy is going the same direction as Greece’s ecomomy—-bankruptcy.

  3. Crystal K says:

    Forrest Roles, I’m sensing some cognitive dissonance here. Under the Obama administration the EPA has been doing it’s job, for the first time since the Clean Water Act was gutted by Bush and Co. It’s the part of Obama’s run that I am most satisfied with. You really cannot say that Obama has been completely unsatisfactory when approaching climate change while simultaneously putting down his appointment who was the force behind making the EPA an actual functioning regulatory body again. Yes, Obama most certainly dropped the ball altogether in Copenhagen, but how are we ever to control our emissions without the EPA or some other governmental regulating agency that ensures we actually fulfill any promises we would have made at that conference? Ask polluting corporations really nicely? Also, Mitt Romney wouldn’t have refused negotiations in Copenhagen after he has promised to gut the EPA? What? That would have made those negotiations absolutely empty.

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Forrest,

    Where in Gov. Romney’s various policy proposals is his commitment to seeking the sort of international accord you talk about?

    In addition, just to clarify, the headline of this post reads, “Is climate change just a joke to the GOP?” It doesn’t read, “Is climate change just a joke to Mitt Romney?”

    It’s very clear from the GOP platform quoted above that the party platform questions the scientific consensus on climate change (“This is especially important when the causes and long-range effects of a phenomenon are uncertain.”) … and if Gov. Romney felt the issue were that important, he certainly would have been able to ensure the platform represented his views on that. He didn’t. Instead, he made the issue a joke he could use to get a laugh during his acceptance speech.

    Forrest, I don’t believe many people would disagree with you that President Obama hasn’t done nearly as much as his supporters had hoped to address climate change. Of course, some of that failure is due to the stated intention of the Republicans in Congress to ensure the administration’s legislative agenda was stalled. Much of it is also because various industries lobbied hard against action.

    It’s worth pointing out though, the findings of Michael Grunwald’s new book, “The New New Deal,” regarding the Obama stimulus bill and green energy. From the Amazon write-up:

    “The stimulus has launched a transition to a clean-energy economy, doubled our renewable power, and financed unprecedented investments in energy efficiency, a smarter grid, electric cars, advanced biofuels, and green manufacturing.” http://www.amazon.com/The-New-Deal-Hidden-Change/dp/1451642326

    I highly recommend the book for those interested in fact-based discussions of these issue.

    On the other hand, it’s worth noting that it appears the Democratic party is not necessarily going to stick to a strong platform about climate change, either:

    “The Democratic Party’s 2012 platform no longer pledges to free Americans from the tyranny of big oil, dropping the prior platform’s hard-line support for renewable energy for an “all-of-the-above” strategy favored by President Barack Obama and his Republican rivals.
    “While the platform does still call for an international deal to curtail the types of pollution that accelerate climate change, it does not say that the agreement should be binding, as it did in 2008. The platform also drops the party’s 2008 support for the “cap and trade” scheme Democrats failed to pass in 2010. Delegates at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Charlotte, North Carolina are expected to approve the platform on Tuesday.”
    http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/09/04/democratic-party-platform-weakens-commitment-to-climate-change-action/

    Ken.

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Forrest,

    I thought you would be interested in the responses the two candidates gave to a climate change question from a group of science organizations, http://www.sciencedebate.org/debate12/#2

    The question:

    “The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change—and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?”

    Quoting in part from Gov. Romney’s response —

    “Nowhere along the way has the President indicated what actual results his approach would achieve — and with good reason. The reality is that the problem is called Global Warming, not America Warming. China long ago passed America as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. Developed world emissions have leveled off while developing world emissions continue to grow rapidly, and developing nations have no interest in accepting economic constraints to change that dynamic. In this context, the primary effect of unilateral action by the U.S. to impose costs on its own emissions will be to shift industrial activity overseas to nations whose industrial processes are more emissions-intensive and less environmentally friendly. That result may make environmentalists feel better, but it will not better the environment … ”

    Quoting in part from President Obama’s response:

    “We are also showing international leadership on climate change, reaching historic agreements to set emission limits in unison with all major developed and developing nations. There is still more to be done to address this global problem.”

    Commenting on that response from President Obama, science policy expert Roger Pielke said on his blog:

    “Seriously? “Reaching historic agreements”? Historically inconsequential maybe. For those single issue voters focused on all things climate, the Obama campaign’s response says: “You”ll vote for me no matter what pablum I give to the ScienceDebate.” Slap!”

    http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2012/09/romney-vs-obama-in-sciencedebate.html

    Ken.

  6. Forrest Roles says:

    Ken,
    Your cites make the point. Romney has acknowledged that the science shows real risk in continued greenhouse gas emissions, but, rightly in my view, criticizes the present president for proposed and taken actions which are unilateral, useless, and economically devastating to the coal industry and those, including many West Virginians, who rely upon it for a decent living. Obama, defends those actions as showing international leadership and even brags about his international efforts. As you pointed out, those actions were palpably ineffective. International agreements are the only real solution and anyone who cares about the danger of climate change should think twice before supporting a candidate who is proud of that dismal record.
    It is true that Romney has not specified what he will propose. Neither candidate will likely do so. See http://www.energybiz.com/article/12/09/president-obama-tone-down-climate-change-talk However, there is at least hope that Romney will try to achieve something effective to meet a world problem. As last time’s Republican platform shows, the party is not composed of deniers. Romney has shown the ability to get things done by working with the other party. Given his performance and apparent pride in it, there is no such hope in a second Obama term.
    Forrest

  7. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Forrest,

    I believe I’ve recommended this New Yorker piece before for a summary of what happened during the Obama administration regarding climate change. It’s as good as any summary I’ve seen, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/11/101011fa_fact_lizza?currentPage=all

    From where I was sitting watching Gov. Romney’s convention speech, when he used the notion of action on climate change as a laugh line to help him with the GOP base, it was very far from clear that he will try to do anything about this world problem.

    Of course, the story of inaction on climate change didn’t start with January 2009, and it’s important to look at history before that in understanding what has and hasn’t happened…with much help from the GOP, polluting industries spent more than 20 years trying to convince the public there was no problem. That effort continues, including in this year’s GOP national party platform.

    Ken.

Leave a Reply