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

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. 

By Bradford Plumer/Environmental Installations by Nicole Dextras
Published: September-October 2012

 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.

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. 

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Meanwhile, under Obama, the

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.

Adding forest land to Tennessee

There is a bill sitting in Congress that Mr. Reid will not bring to the floor even though there is no cost now or ever. A total of 20,000 acres is out there awaiting Congressional approval to be added across our state's parks system. It all boils down to politics. Most of this land will go to the Cherokee National Forest which spans Tennessee and North Carolina. I have sent an email to Congressman Reid but doubt that he will ever see it or be told about it. Makes me sick how Congress is allowing politics to prevent important issues, in all areas, just sit there. Thanks for allowing me to vent.


Lorna mentions fundamental changes that will be needed in our behavior and issues that are not being addressed publicly. As members of Audubon, we must always push for recognition of these myriad problems and ways to address them. This important for the future survival for the birds we love, but, also for our own survival. To get a good picture of what happens when societies do not conserve their environments well, I suggest reading "Collapse, How Societies Choose to Suceed or Fail," by Jared Diamond. It is an interesting historical, anthropological and scientific perspective on what happens when societies do not plan for conserving or using wisely, the natural resources they depend upon. But don't take too much time reading. Contact your elected officials and vote.

response to Lorna

EXCELLENT STATMENT!!!! with undeniable truths... I must correct you though, WE ARE IN A CRISIS!!!! RIGHT NOW , TODAY AT THIS VERY MOMENT ...yet we complacently stand by, watch, read without even a pause at the loss of Arctic ice, the dying of species, the loss of habitat, the aerial killing of wolves, the acidification of the ocean at the hand overdosing on fertlizers, the increased rates of asthma because of pollution, smoking, emissions,, the spraying of instecticide over 1000s of acres eventoday (Rachel Carson would be rolling in her grave in sadness-Silent Spring), chemical pollutants in dry cleaning, GMO seeds and produce....WE ARE IN A CRISIS AND UNTIL WE ALL STOP TO VOTE AND ACT ON WHAT WE NEED RATHER THAT WHAT WE WANT IN OUR OVER-INDULGED LIVES.... my children and your children will not have this world we know to bring their children into (something this young generation is already talking about,..not having children because the future or our world is so grim)....... why is this NOT on the agenda, why is the environment not a priority?
now is getting to be too late to act.................how sad what we have done


People like me find themselves at odds with many environmental groups. Some people embrace wind turbines, yet don't ask for proof if they actually do anything. They are fine with the fact we are putting these on "public lands", ripping up trees and the tops of mountains and asking for 20 year kill permits for eagles and bats specifically for wind projects -- yet if any efficient source of power tired to do this they would be fined, and in every newspaper. I just find that ironic. I had little knowledge of wind projects until Jan. 2010 - what I have discovered, reading pass the company and industry information is an eye opener. As a person who normally votes Democrat, I've found that I can not justify the unfairness and the environmental groups support of kill of bats/eagles and gutting moutains & ripping up trees for an inefficient source of power that must be back up with more efficient sources just so we can say "we're green"

Tell the Truth Audubon!

Of course Obama's 2010 environmental proposal failed to pass the Senate - it was controlled by the Democrats led by Democrat Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. So this point was wrong, and not explained by the writer of the article.
As for the the cost of solar photovoltaic systems that dropped in half - as discussed by the writer of the article - that happened because foreign manufacturers cut the cost of production, not because anything that happened in the USA. That's also the reason Solyndra went belly-up - they couldn't compete cost-wise with foreigh manufacturers. Of course, this was known by the Feds before the $500 million went to Solyndra, but since the head of Solyndra was an Obama buddy, the money went there anyway.
How about some intellectual honesty, Audubon? Tell the truth and the whole story, not bits and pieces that you think support your argument.
The American people are not as stupid as you seem to think!

society vs. invective

Audubon has a specific agenda concerning wildlife, especially bird, protection. To substantially cover environmental issues takes a book rather than an article, so combative and ad hominem (accusations of falsehood) attack is utterly inappropriate not to mention uncivil. Comments would benefit by being constructive rather than invective.
I hope that comment moderators are employed at this site, as the above kind of nastiness reduces, rather than advances the mission of the Society (whether Audubon or larger, general society). No one has anywhere on this site accused the "American" people (however inclusive or exclusive that phrase was intended to be) of stupidity, although the article certainly does make the clear point that insufficient care may be involved.

Re: Solyndra

That is not completely true - the Solyndra loan program was started under President George W. Bush.
However, President Obama expanded it through the economic stimulus of 2009.
It’s legitimate to question whether the government should have made this particular bet, or whether it overplayed a weak hand, or whether it should be making bets in the first place.
But if we’re going to have a clean energy industry in this country, this kind of thing is going to happen.
My hope is we can invest again in clean energy and stop kow-towing to BIG Oil (Koch Bro's).


It is beyond belief people can't see past their own desires. I am dismayed at our candidate choices this election because the only issue I vote on is the environment. Being a scientist I never was paid much, but enjoy my work which I've found more rewarding than monetary value. What I don't understand is: After you buy everything you want and don't have water to drink, no food because there are no crops, the world is embattled with weather crisis; who cares what car you drive or where you live...As a matter of fact, who's going to be around to care at all? We can't live without water, food or air; we can live without money!

I am always intrigued about

I am always intrigued about folks who think that a thriving economy and a protected environment are somehow at odds with each other. I also find it interesting that philanthropic donations increase and decrease proportionally with the strength of our economy. So if unemployment were to hit 20%, how much money would be donated to conservation efforts? How much would be donated to Audubon, DU, IGFA, your local parks district? A thriving economy is essential to environmental conservation. The most powerful conservation weapon you have is your checkbook and the money you have in it is the ammunition.

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