Four debates — three presidential and one vice-presidential — and climate change has not been mentioned once. During their debates the closest the presidential candidates got to addressing the catastrophic ecological crisis was jousting over the price of gasoline and one-upping each other about how much coal and oil each is going to extract. Even in last night’s globally-focused debate in Florida — ground zero for sea-level rise in the U.S. — climate change went ominously unmentioned in debates over America’s ability to project military power.
Given the degree to which climate change has been screaming for attention in recent years in the form of extreme weather events, it is truly astonishing that Obama and Romney have managed to avoid the subject altogether. The number of “Major Disaster Declarations” by the federal government has doubled in the last 10 years, from 43 in 1991 to 99 in 2011. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2012 so far has seen the most extreme weather in recorded history throughout the contiguous U.S.: crippling droughts in some regions, extreme precipitation in others, uncontrollable wildfires, and the hottest January-August on record. Globally the picture is similar. The summer saw sea ice in the Arctic shrink to its smallest area ever, while flooding and drought plagued the planet from Bangkok to Brazil.
Such calamities — and the fact that they may constitute a new normal for the planet — add a crucial, though almost completely ignored, dimension to Obama and Romney’s debates over the role of government. Since the State and the public sector (the central object of disagreement in this election) are the only entities with the power and scope to effectively mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, Romney and the GOP’s ongoing assault on the federal government has serious implications not just for the economy, but for the ecology of the planet.
First, it is crucial to understand that the state will necessarily be central to any serious attempt to address the climate crisis. The federal government is the only body with the ability to regulate and prevent further greenhouse gas emissions and the only body with the capital and capacity to respond to current climate disasters. If elected, Romney and the GOP will quash these governmental powers and leave the American people — and the planet — at the mercy of a climate gyrating wildly out of control.
Romney has sworn to rein in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which he calls “a tool in the hands of the President to crush the private enterprise system.” He promises to revoke completely its already limited ability to regulate carbon emissions through the Clean Air Act. This drastic move will essentially guarantee an acceleration of the rate at which we inundate the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.
Once our ability to prevent further planetary warming has been emasculated, Romney and the GOP plan to take their federal budget wars to the few mechanisms we currently have to respond to climate disasters. They plan to strip the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) of more than half of its budget, thereby radically curtailing our ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from extreme weather events. Romney also wants to further downsize federal funds for first responders such as police and firefighters — who have been absolutely indispensable to dealing with this summer’s rampant wildfires.
Along with these draconian cuts to much-needed disaster-response services, the Republicans’ proposed budget retains a decade’s worth of tax breaks and subsidies for Big Oil to the tune of $45 billion. Not that the oil industry needs the help. Last year, the three biggest U.S. oil companies raked in more than $80 billion in profit while Exxon Mobil pocketed nearly $4.7 million every hour.
The Republican platform not only dismantles our abilities to respond to and regulate future climate change, it even subsidies its production.
While Obama’s recent silence about climate change has been regressive to say the least, he and the Democrats certainly offer a more forward-thinking energy policy than do Romney and the Republicans. Obama’s most important move to date on the climate change front has been to propose the Repeal Big Oil Tax Subsidies Act — which, had it passed the Congress, would have cut billions of dollars of annual taxpayer subsidies to the top five American oil companies and would have freed up capital to invest in renewable sources.
None of this much matters if you still deny that climate change is occurring like, say, Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan does. And he is not out of line with the Republican Party. In 2011, the GOP-led House of Representatives defiantly rejected a Democratic amendment calling for Congress to accept the scientific consensus that climate change is occurring, that it is caused in large part by human activity and that it is a threat to human health.
The climate dimension raises the stakes of the struggles over the state and proves a Romney presidency to be a much more reckless play than previously thought.
Patrick Sheehan is a fourth-year sociology major.