CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was just six words, but when President Barack Obama gave a shout-out to global warming in his acceptance speech this month, he reintroduced an issue that had all but disappeared from the political debate.
“Climate change is not a hoax," Obama said, an assertion that brought Democratic National Convention delegates to their feet, as he pledged to continue approaching energy policy in a way he said would “continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet."
In a year when the political debate has lacked nearly any discussion of climate change, some environmentalists have struggled to summon enthusiasm for the Democratic president they helped elect in 2008 in part because of his views on global warming. So they rejoiced when the president rebutted a taunt tossed out by Republican candidate Mitt Romney the week before.
Romney had quipped in his own acceptance speech in Tampa, Fla., that Obama “promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet."
“My promise is to help you and your family," Romney added.
It was a rhetorical flourish, an attack line offered to make the point that Romney understands the kitchen table issues that, he says, the president doesn’t. But environmentalists heard it as heresy.
“Twenty years from now, history is going to judge the next generation on how they responded to the destabilization of our climate," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “With a couple of short sentences, Romney made clear what’s at stake in this election."
Yet the nation’s disappointing economic picture, as well as the complexities of each candidate’s record on global warming, make climate change a tough sell for the independent voters who will decide the presidential race.
Although climate change typically ranks below such issues as the economy, polling done in March, 2012 by Yale University and George Mason University found that 72 percent of Americans think that global warming should be a priority for the president and Congress.
Among registered voters, 84 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 52 percent of Republicans think global warming should be a priority.
Tough choices ahead
Regardless of the candidates’ relative silence about global warming on the campaign trail, the next president will face tough choices on controversial energy and environmental issues such as whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline and how to handle natural gas development and the environmentally fraught “fracking" that goes with it.
The silence on the campaign trail belies the reality — and the gravity — for many coastal communities. Planners in south Florida and New York City already are looking at the multibillion-dollar expense of upgrading infrastructure to address rising sea levels.
Romney has said previously that he believes climate change is occurring and that human activity is a contributing factor.
During the Republican primary season, though, he said he didn’t believe it was the right course to spend “trillions and trillions" to reduce carbon emissions.
More recently, he said in a questionnaire submitted to Science Debate, a nonprofit organization focusing on science issues in the presidential campaign, that he believes human activity contributes to global warming and that policymakers should consider the risk of negative consequences.
Frank Maisano, a lobbyist whose firm represents energy interests and who has been involved in climate change discussions for 15 years, cautioned not to read too much into Romney’s dig about the rise of the oceans. It was designed to show Obama is “a little bit out of touch," he said.
“Right now, you need someone who cares about you rather than these larger, soaring rhetorical issues," Maisano said.