Friday, November 02, 2012

If campaigns are zero-sum games, why will neither side talk about climate?

I've seen the justified lamentations about the lack of climate discussion in the campaign, and occasional discussion of why Obama hasn't talked that much about it.  (I provided my own explanation - Ohio.)  There's less discussion of why Romney doesn't talk about it, and little about why the interaction between candidates doesn't produce discussion.

In zero-sum politics, a disadvantage for one candidate should be an advantage for the other candidate, so why doesn't at least one of them push his opinion?

Unlike Karl Rove, I don't have THE answer, but I do have possibilities:

1.  This NYTimes article says their positions aren't that different.  Both acknowledge people are changing climate, so there's no reason to talk about that as opposed to their actual differences over energy policy.

I'm not buying it, first because it far overstates Romney's acceptance of climate change: "there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue."  That leaves plenty of room for a fight between reality and denial.  Also the strong difference in energy policy - support a growing sector versus abandoning it to China in favor of a declining and polluting sector - should easily reference back to climate.

The article does provide a service in saying Obama hasn't been completely silent.  And Romney's oblique references have been mocking Obama's intention to do something about it.  Let's refine the question to why both sides say so little instead of being silent.

On to more promising ideas.

2.  One or both sides overestimate the risk to their position.  If each side thinks the issue can backfire and hurt their side relative to the other, then neither will bring it up.  Both campaigns might think the issue has a 55% chance of helping the other side - that's not possible in zero sums, but would mean someone has bad political judgment.

I think this plays a role.

3.  It's not climate as an issue but their own ability to hurt themselves.  Maybe the candidates figure anything they say is more likely to motivate the other side than it is to motivate their own side, so again they keep quiet.  The analogy would be to Romney's relative silence over his abortion position, and the Democrats' relative silence about their somewhat-tepid opposition to torture and civil rights violations.

Problem with this one is that surrogates and Superpacs would likely go on the attack over climate, but everyone has little to say.

4.  It's like space policy - not enough people cared to force it on the agenda.  If Hurricane Sandy had happened in September then things might have been different.  If last summer's heat wave had more time to get into the public mindset, it also might have changed things.  The idea here though is that while the policy elites may be thinking of these things, most of the public isn't.

Sadly, I'm giving this last option the most credit, with an assist from overestimating risk.  It doesn't excuse a lack of leadership, but again helps explain it.  And it means those of us who care about climate have to do more.

For a little respite from climate silence, here's a debate between campaign surrogates with the last part discussing climate.  Romney's surrogate flat-out lies in the debate about current coal technology not producing pollutants, but admits that Romney would eliminate greenhouse gas controls that the EPA is currently phasing in under the Clean Air Act.  He also says the government should provide some money for energy research, but nothing to reduce carbon emissions.  So much for the NY Times article.