Global Warming Has Finally Come Up in Michigan… but don't get too excited yet

Whichever way the Michigan Republican primary goes–and we'll know soon enough–something very noteworthy has occurred on the climate and energy front.

Due to this particular dynamics of this race, which has been set in the backyard of the ailing American auto industry just after the U.S. Congress voted to increase corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, the two frontrunners John McCain and Mitt Romney have been trading multiple barbs over climate and energy policy.

And so Romney has claimed (very shortsightedly, in my view) that the new raise in fuel economy standards will hurt Detroit, costing it jobs–and of course, this is a bill John McCain voted for.

Similarly, Romney has slammed McCain for supporting a cap-and-trade bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, calling it a “job killer.” Again–misleading words, but at least these kinds of subjects are coming front and center in the campaign finally.

In fact, insofar as Michigan may further the candidate winnowing process, it could also help determine whether or not we wind up with two final presidential candidates, the Democrat and the Republican, who make action on climate change a top priority–or with only one (the Democrat). Which is as important as all hell–but not, for the moment, what centrally interests me.

Instead, right now I want to discuss more generally how information about science and technology policy–including climate science and technology policy–has been reaching American voters in the context of the present electoral season. Thus far, as has been oft noted, the attention to global warming by the media during the campaign has been dismal. Ditto for the attention paid to science policy issues in general.

Thanks to Michigan, though, that has changed–at least temporarily. I mean, you only had to tune in to the Sunday talk shows over the weekend to see it in action.

Here's Mitt Romney talking to CBS's Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation”:

SCHIEFFER: Well, are you talking about government subsidies for Michigan? What exactly are you talking specifically of doing for Michigan?
Mr. ROMNEY: Well, as an example, investing substantially more in basic science and research. We invest about $4 billion a year is all in science relating to energy and fuel technology and material science, and yet we're buying $400 billion a year worth of oil from other people. We should be investing far more money in fuel technologies, automotive technologies. We can do it here in Michigan and in other places where there're science centers. Those new technologies can be bled off and spun out into the private sector, creating automobiles and other transportation vehicles we can't even dream of today that will propel a strong and vibrant future. But the only way a great nation like ours stays ahead of a very populous nation like China–or even Korea, for that matter, where they have low labor cost, is by investing in technology and innovation and leading the world in the development of new products. And we are frankly lagging behind.

However, I don't feel too much like rejoicing that such subjects are finally coming up in Michigan. Sure it's beneficial–but it's also more or less accidental.

The mass media are only asking questions about these issues now because of the sharp divide between the candidates on climate and energy policy–not because they care intrinsically about these subjects or views them as natural topics for sustained campaign coverage. And that's why I and a group of others have been supporting a push, called ScienceDebate2008, to deliberately inject science policy matters–and especially global warming–into the U.S. presidential election in a systematic way.

The idea is that since these kinds of topics clearly aren't arising naturally on the campaign trail–except in specific circumstances, such as the Michigan primary–there ought to be a specific mass media event, in debate format, devoted to them. After all, it would be simply irresponsible to elect a new U.S. president without knowing enough about how he or she thinks about the politics and policies of science and technology–given the centrality of both to the U.S. future, as well as to the ways in which we attempt to deal with crises like global warming.

But while ScienceDebate2008 has garnered dramatic support since its launch–check out the roster of distinguished endorsers of the project if you don't believe me, or the roster of supporting bloggers, or the literally thousands of individuals who have offered their endorsements–it still faces an uphill battle. The clock is ticking, the field of candidates is shrinking, and whether the remaining contenders will make time for a science debate after Super Tuesday (February 5) remains to be seen.

And there's another problem as well: Despite the fact that science and technology are the common theme that tie together a wide range of policy issues, interest groups too rarely see things that way. For instance, environmental groups want to hear the candidates talk about global warming, not about science–even though a candidate who gets science will get global warming, too.

Some of us are working at cross purposes here, and we ought to be on the same team.

So whoever wins in Michigan, neither science nor environmental advocates–sadly, they are still different bunches of folks at the moment–ought to be happy that our issues finally came up. We have a right to demand a far more extensive and concerted discussion of them before final votes are cast in November, and we shouldn't let up now.


“The idea is that since these kinds of topics clearly aren’t arising naturally on the campaign trail–except in specific circumstances, such as the Michigan primary–there ought to be a specific mass media event, in debate format, devoted to them.”

Chris, just a quick point here. One of the most curious things about this primary season, McCain actually ran climate change ads in New Hampshire. These ads, despite the fact the issue doesn’t register at all with Republican voters. In fact, and we saw this in Michigan, discussing climate change can hurt. McCain began running those ads a few weeks before the primary, which strategically was an odd choice. It was at that point that I thought this guy might actually get it on the issue, he understood the stakes and spoke with urgency. There was no political gain, many Republicans are hostile, the rest don’t seem to care, they were gutsy ads.

In Michigan, McCain started talking about climate change in his first stump speech, the Romney camp seized on it, painting McCain as wanting to harm the economy. I guess my point, McCain does seem to want to talk about the issue, in a way that doesn’t quite jive with his immediate political aspirations. With McCain the issue does seem to arise “naturally” to an extent.

How can Steve claim the issue did not register with Republicans in NH?

Here is a paragraph from the exec summary of polling conducted 1 year ago: ‘A supermajority of Republican primary voters view global warming as a serious threat. Seventy percent (70%) say that global warming already constitutes a serious threat today. Just 28% believe the threat posed by global warming is either “not too serious,” or “not serious at all.” Registered independents who are likely to vote in the Republican primary are even more likely to view the threat of global warming as very serious.’

Point of fact: Romney was describing a ‘no regrets’ position at one time. McCain adopted and ran with it.
Another fact: voters in 164 NH towns passed the NH Climate Change Resolution in March 2007 town meetings, calling for federal action by the next president & congress. 99 of these towns voted R in the 2002 US senate race.
Visit for a record of what all of the candidates - Rs and Ds - said about global warming.
Steve is misinformed.


Points taken. However, if the information you cite as evidence of Republican concern, why then did no candidate speak on it, except McCain? Doesn’t it not make sense that candidates would try to capitalize on an issue which people demonstrate concern? The truth is, in all the polling of Conservative voters, the environment doesn’t even register, completely non-existent. Politicians generally respond to what is on the voters mind. The Republicans are talking about immigration, the economy, terrorism, Iraq, taxcuts, god, abortion…. Why? Because that’s what the voters tell them is important.

My point on McCain, there really wasn’t a political payoff for speaking on the topic. I will go further, speaking about climate change in a depressed economy like Michigan, where the auto sector is already reeling, is hardly a voter getter. You will note, Romney’s people jumped all over this, because they say a chance to get some traction.

You say I’m misinformed, but if you look at the Republican candidates, and see the complete abscence of the issue on anyone’s radar, besides McCain, that speaks volumes to how important the issue really is with Republicans.

In NH, at least, I think that the Republican candidates’ reluctance to talk about climate change probably hurt them. While I wouldn’t claim that McCain’s willingness to address it was his key to victory, there is no doubt that Republicans and,importantly, independents were asking for Republican candidates’ plans to address GW. As the Republicans look towards the general election (and again, I am talking from experience about NH, but I think you can extrapolate to other “purple” states), they are going to need to talk about energy policy with regards to GW(and not just energy security) in order to reach the crucial 20% of the electorate that will decide the election.

My sense about why the Republicans don’t talk about it is that while they understand that Republicans by-and-large see the need for a strong energy policy, they don’t percieve GW as a make-or-break issue for voters other than GW deniers who are more likely to vote against someone they disagree with on this issue. In the general election, when Republicans will need to target the “mainstream” and the denier constituency is less scary demgraphically, then I imagine the nominee will be more forthcoming. My sense (again based on NH) is that concern is bipartisan, but the conservative fringe that the Republican candidates seem to feel the need to play to (with double-Guantanamo, illegal immigrant-fearmongering, etc.) is the notable exception.