Climate Silence and the 2012 Presidential Campaign

Friday, November 2, 2012

Though the four debates of the presidential election ignored any talk of policies that could mitigate climate change, Hurricane Sandy’s disastrous path brought the issue front and center during the final week of the campaign. Susan Liebell, Ph.D., associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, says that between the two front-runners, there is a major difference of opinion regarding the climate question and how each candidate would handle energy policy.

Gov. Romney’s views have changed since he was governor of Massachusetts, when he was more open to talking about climate change as a serious issue,” says Liebell, who has studied American environmental politics. “He now says that climate change might not exist, despite the fact that 99 percent of all climate scientists agree that it does. He believes we should continue to exploit fossil fuels, advocating an increase in the production of coal, oil and natural gas, and supports increased drilling on all national lands and waters, vowing to cut all funding for wind, solar and geothermal (alternative) fuels.” 

In contrast, Liebell says when then-Sen. Obama ran for president in 2008, his position on climate change was it should be dealt with by using fossil fuels as a bridge while promoting the development of and use of alternative fuels. Four years later his position is essentially unchanged, which begs the question, she says: If there is such a wide gulf of opinion about climate and energy policy between the two camps, why hasn’t this been an issue in the campaign?

While it’s clear that the focus on the economy pushed many important issues to the side, Liebell says the “Climate Silence” – so named by the media and environmental groups – experienced during the debates is related to the emergence of coal as a crucial issue in swing states like Ohio, Virginia and Colorado.

“Talking about climate change in Ohio or the other swing states won't win votes, but discussing increased coal production or the export of coal to China and the jobs it will bring to the local economy is very popular with some voters,” Liebell notes. “President Obama does not want to alienate these voters by bringing up climate change, and he knows that those who do care about climate change and see coal as a dirty energy source already know that Romney isn't their candidate.”

Liebell can be reached for comment at or by calling the Office of University Communications at 610-660-3240.

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