speri.comment: the political economy blog

The U.S. Elections and the climate silence

Obama defeats Romney, but the politics of climate change was the real loser in this election

Jeremy Green, Lecturer in International Political Economy, University of Cambridge, SPERI Honorary Research Fellow

Jeremy Green

Jeremy Green

As hurricane Sandy battered the Eastern coast of the U.S. last week, campaigning ground to a halt. A force beyond the control of party politics had made a spectacular intervention, with commentators anticipating that Sandy could have a major impact upon the elections outcome.

It’s ironic that an election sound tracked by the effects of climate turbulence could have fallen silent on the burning issue of global warming. And this in the wake of record high temperatures and widespread drought in the United States last summer: the worst since the 1950s in fact.

Obama offered a muted recognition of climate change, while Romney confined himself to derisory rebukes of the climate threat. But Obama’s comments were restrained in comparison to the stance adopted on climate in his first campaign.

In the run up to his first term in office Obama proposed a ‘cap and trade’ programme to restrain carbon emissions, while also recognizing the need for annual targets on carbon pollution. Once in office he temporarily suspended a decision on the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline expansion after popular opposition.

These commitments have disintegrated in the recent campaign. Obama now speaks of exploiting American gas reserves to drive growth. The reason is fairly straightforward: the politics of growth has kicked climate politics into touch.

Both candidates staked their claim to govern on the basis of their ability to create jobs and get America on the road to recovery. With Romney frequently opining that ‘I know how to create jobs’.  The methods that Romney and Obama offered here were different.

Obama advocated targeted government spending and some progressive tax increases in order to stimulate the recovery and create jobs, while Romney focused on shrinking government spending and cutting taxes across the board.

The meaning of recovery is a rare element of consensus in a divided America: it means growth. This is a big problem.

If we step back from the immediate crisis of growth we see the looming threat of a broader, civilisation crisis driven by climate change. More growth means higher consumption and greater demands for fossil fuel energy. This will only aggravate, and not alleviate, environmental damage.  Paradoxically, in environmental terms, recession is progressive.

Since the recession began in 2008, climate-deniers have seized the opportunity to fight back against the growing consensus on the dangers of climate change. A massive lobbying campaign has been undertaken in the U.S., with prominent sponsorship from Exxon Mobil and the Koch Foundation.

In challenging economic times the focus has shifted back towards growth, with green policies viewed as an expensive luxury. Nowhere was this clearer than in the disastrous failure of the Copenhagen summit on climate change in 2009.

America’s stance on this issue is crucial. It’s the only country that has the power to build a new consensus on the politics of climate change. It’s also the biggest user of fossil fuels and the country with the most profoundly unsustainable way of life.

We should all be paying attention to the politics of climate change in the U.S. Because where America leads, others often follow.

The failure to question the politics of growth reflects a profound misreading of the depth of the current crisis. Impending and already visible ecological crisis undergirds the current global economic crisis. But they are treated as two different issues with very different priorities accorded to each.

Green policies and reduced consumption are a hard sell to electorates, especially during a crisis. But we need to start making these issues a priority and educating voters to recognize their importance.

Ultimately, escaping the broader crisis will require us to escape from the prevailing growth paradigm. And the sooner we begin to make the transition, the smoother it will be.

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Categories: Climate change, Global crisis, SPERI Comment | 1 comment

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Comments (1)

  1. ‘where america leads, others often follow’.
    Herein lies the problem, the US has absolutely no interest in leading.
    When the financial crisis kicked off all govermnents could talk about (including the US) was how a green recovery involving the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs would ensue. Now the environment appears to be an inconvenient externality hindering the natural workings of the market and the path to growth.
    Given that generally speaking the public is completely apathetic to environmental issues, and the power of lobbyists, how do you even begin to get the kind of sustainable (economic and environmental) growth that is needed?

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