Last Night’s Big Loser: Climate Change

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I want to expand on something I mentioned at the tail end of my post-debate roundup last night: the big loser in Tuesday’s debate was climate change. Neither candidate mentioned it, but they practically fell all over each other to declare their love for coal and fracking and drilling for oil on federal land. Here’s an edited bit of the conversation about energy yesterday:

OBAMA: Natural gas production is the highest it’s been in decades. We have seen increases in coal production and coal employment.

ROMNEY: Oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land, and gas production was down 9 percent….What we don’t need is to have the president keeping us from taking advantage of oil, coal and gas….We’re going to bring that pipeline in from Canada.  

OBAMA : We’re actually drilling more on public lands than in the previous administration….And natural gas isn’t just appearing magically. We’re encouraging it and working with the industry….Oil production is up, natural gas production is up.

ROMNEY: I was just at a coal facility, where some 1,200 people lost their jobs….I will fight for oil, coal and natural gas….I will fight to create more energy in this country…taking advantage of the oil and coal we have here, drilling offshore in Alaska, drilling offshore in Virginia where the people want it.

OBAMA : We’ve built enough pipeline to wrap around the entire earth once. So, I’m all for pipelines. I’m all for oil production.

ROMNEY: I appreciate the jobs in coal and oil and gas. I’m going to make sure we’re taking advantage of our energy resources. We’ll bring back manufacturing to America. 

There were plenty of nods toward renewable energy in the conversation, but they were mostly pro forma. And they certainly weren’t made in the context of climate change. They were mostly made in the context of “energy independence.” The closest Obama came to saying anything climate chainge-ish was a vague reference to being “environmentally sound.” Romney never came close at all.

I’m not really sure what to say about this. Pundit law suggests I should have a few hundred pithy words about it, but I really don’t. Rightly or wrongly, both campaigns have apparently decided that climate change is a loser. Romney doesn’t want to admit that it even exists, since this would enrage a tea party base that believes it’s all a liberal conspiracy theory, and Obama apparently recognizes that it’s a political loser and will gain him nothing. After the Copenhagen talks failed and cap-and-trade became cap-and-tax, he pretty much gave up on it.

Politically, he might be making the right decision. No broad climate change policy has a ghost of a chance of passing right now, and a public already battered by recession doesn’t want to hear about carbon taxes or rising energy prices. Things like higher CAFE standards might be less efficient, but at least they’re doable. And investments in clean energy, though risky in their own right (Republicans have certainly done their best to make Solyndra a dirty word), may be the best we can hope for right now.

It’s funny, though. There was also a fair amount of China bashing last night, and you’d think Obama could at least use that to his advantage. Do we really want to cede dominance in solar technology to the Chinese? Or should we be investing to make sure that American solar technology is the best in the world? It’s not the most high-minded approach to climate change, but it might work. Any port in a storm.

UPDATE: More from Ed Kilgore here.

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