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Keystone XL Delay Shows Climate Change Is a Big Election Issue

If you thought the upcoming election is only about jobs, think again.

| Tue Nov. 15, 2011 4:22 PM EST

As a result, after years of decline, the number of Americans who understand that the planet is indeed warming and that we're to blame appears to be on the rise again. And ironically enough, one reason may be the spectacle of all the tea-partying GOP candidates for the presidency being forced to swear fealty to the notion that global warming is a hoax. Normal people find this odd: it's one thing to promise Grover Norquist that you'll never ever raise taxes; it's another to promise that you'll defeat chemistry and physics with the mighty power of the market.

Along these lines, Mitt Romney made an important unforced error last month. Earlier in the primaries, he and Jon Huntsman had been alone in the Republican field in being open to the idea that global warming might actually be real. Neither wanted to do anything about it, of course, but that stance itself was enough to mark them as realists. It was also a sign that Romney was thinking ahead to the election itself, and didn't want to be pinned against this particular wall.

In late October, however, he evidently felt he had no choice but to pin himself to exactly that wall and so stated conclusively: "My view is that we don't know what's causing climate change on this planet." In other words, he not only flip-flopped to the side of climate denial, but did so less than six months after he had said no less definitively: "I don't speak for the scientific community, of course, but I believe the world's getting warmer… And number two, I believe that humans contribute to that." Note as well that he did so, while all the evidence, even some recently funded by the deniers, pointed the other way.

If he becomes the Republican presidential candidate as expected, this may be the most powerful weathervane ad the White House will have in its arsenal. Even for people who don't care about climate change, it makes him look like the spinally challenged fellow he seems to be. But it's an ad that couldn't be run if the president had okayed that pipeline.

Now that Obama has at least temporarily blocked Keystone XL, now that his team has promised to consider climate change as a factor in any final decision on the pipeline's eventual fate, he can campaign on the issue. And in many ways, it may prove a surprise winner.

After all, only people who would never vote for him anyway deny global warming. It's a redoubt for talk-show rightists. College kids, on the other hand, consistently rank it among the most important issues. And college kids, as Gerald Seib pointed out in the Wall Street Journal last week, are a key constituency for the president, who is expected to need something close to the two-thirds margin he won on campus in 2008 to win again in 2012.

Sure, those kids care about student loans, which threaten to take them under, and jobs, which are increasingly hard to come by, but the nature of young people is also to care about the world. In addition, independent voters, suburban moms—these are the kinds of people who worry about the environment. Count on it: they'll be key targets for Obama's presidential campaign.

Given the economy, that campaign will have to make Mitt Romney look like something other than a middle-of-the-road businessman. If he's a centrist, he probably wins. If he's a flip-flopper with kooky tendencies, they've got a shot. And the kookiest thing he's done yet is to deny climate science.

If I'm right, expect the White House to approve strong greenhouse gas regulations in the months ahead, and then talk explicitly about the threat of a warming world. In some ways it will still be a stretch. To put the matter politely, they've been far from perfect on the issue: the president didn't bother to waste any of his vaunted "political capital" on a climate bill, and he's opened huge swaths of territory to coal mining and offshore drilling.

But blocking the pipeline finally gave him some credibility here—and it gave a lot more of the same to citizens' movements to change our world. Since a lot of folks suspect that the only way forward economically has something to do with a clean energy future, I'm guessing that the pipeline decision won't be the only surprise. I bet Barack Obama talks on occasion about global warming next year, and I bet it helps him.

But don't count on that, or on Keystone XL disappearing, and go home. If the pipeline story (so far) has one lesson, it's this: you can't expect anything to change if you don't go out and change it yourself.

Bill McKibben is a founder of 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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