In an April interview with Rolling Stone, President Barack Obama promised to make the changing global environment a central topic in this year’s presidential campaign.
“I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we’re going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way,” he said at the time. “I'm deeply concerned that internationally, we have not made as much progress as we need to make.”
But mentions of climate change have been almost entirely absent from this year’s campaign rhetoric. Obama rarely uses the phrase "climate change" or "global warming," and he has doggedly avoided touting what his allies in the environmental movement praise — despite a stalemate in Congress — as the most impressive climate change record in American presidential history. In his State of the Union speech — given before the Rolling Stone interview — he mentioned climate change once. After the interview, in a speech delivered on Earth Day, he didn't mention it all.
This approach has left the President stuck uncomfortably between party lines, failing to excite his base without having made any inroads on the right, which despises his stance on energy: a 2012 Gallup poll showed that just 15% of Republicans thought Obama was improving the country's energy policies. His overall approval rating on environmental policy among all voters has fallen from 79% in 2009 to 56% today despite the fact that his actions in that period were largely praised by the activists BuzzFeed spoke to.
"This administration has done more to actually combat global warming than any other administration in history," said Ivan Frishberg, Environment America's political director. But the initiatives that have made Obama popular amongst environmental activists — fuel economy standards, new mercury emission regulations, a federal greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal — have barely hit the public radar.
Meanwhile, Republicans and big oil are attacking him Obama as an anti-American tree-hugger planning to destroy the country’s coal and oil industries. "What will happen to coal miners and their families as a result of the Obama administration’s new EPA regulations?" asks an April advertisement funded by American Crossroads, a Republican SuperPAC. “Our healthcare, pensions, and way of life are on the line.”
The economy, of course, has sent pushed many political topics to the margins during this cycle. "A lot of issues have taken a backseat this election with the economy being front and center,” said Navin Nayak, a senior vice president at the League of Conservation Voters. The president has, in fact, often presented his environmental policies in economic terms (in 2008, he promised to create five million new green jobs), but most voters at the moment presumably are looking for immediate growth, not ambitious economic restructuring.
At the same time, Republicans have made a concerted effort to put the president on the defensive. The Romney campaign and SuperPACs that support it have been spending an unprecedented amount of money on energy-related advertising this cycle. Bloomberg reported in May that 81% of April’s negative campaign ads were focused on energy. These television spots attack Obama’s clean-energy failures, such as the $525 million dollar federal investment in now-bankrupt Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturer. Instead of getting a chance to talk about the entirety of his climate change strategy, Obama has to spend time mitigating damage from a single component thereof.
“He's fighting the live fight," said Frishberg. "You can only have so many fights."
In responding to Republican criticism, Obama points to his development of domestic energy and clean energy technology — solar and wind, primarily, whose inputs into the electricity grid have doubled under Obama — as well as the United States' decreased dependence on foreign oil (lower than it has been in 16 years due to decreased petroleum imports, according to Obama's campaign).
Meanwhile, the nation is suffering through high temperatures and extreme weather conditions. And evidence suggests that, despite the vigor with which climate change debates are still conducted in some quarters, the general public has come to attribute hot and unusual weather to global warming. A March 2012 study by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication revealed that 72% of Americans link the unusually warm winters of 2011 and 2012 to global warming. Similar percentages see a connection between global warming and droughts, record snowfalls, and extreme flooding.
"A large majority of Americans believe that global warming made several high profile extreme weather events worse," the report stated.
"Climate change becomes less of a tomorrow problem when you start to see it today, and see the economic impacts,” Frishberg said. “It’s actually happening now, and becoming a fairly significant problem in the Midwest.”
Congress is even more loathe than the two candidates to approach climate issues, and environmentalists told BuzzFeed they don't expect that to change before the election. “It’s unlikely that Congress catches up to where the people, the science, and the weather are at, at least in the short term,” Frishberg said.
“This has been the most anti-environmental House of Representatives in history,” Nayak said. “I think it’s hard to imagine how, if Speaker Boehner is still in charge, there would be a dramatic change in that.”