Candidates Take Aim At Climate Bill To Win Votes

Correction Nov. 2, 2010

The audio and a previous Web version of this story incorrectly identified Anthony Leiserowitz as a professor at Yale University. Leiserowitz is a research scientist and director of the Yale Project on Climate Change.

Coal-fired Power Plant in New Haven, W. Va.

hide captionA coal-fired power plant in New Haven, W.Va, stores carbon dioxide underground and is the world's largest carbon capture facility. An energy bill that would support such projects is taking a beating from both the left and the right this election season.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Two years ago, both the presidential candidates were big supporters of "cap-and-trade" legislation designed to fight climate change across the economy, but ads and debates in this election season show how unpopular that idea has become.

Democrats are running commercials declaring they're against it because it would raise energy prices and hurt their states' economies. And Republican ads attack Democrats for supporting the bill, which passed the House but stalled in the Senate.

None of those commercials is quite as memorable as one being aired by West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, who is running for Senate. The Democrat is so determined to show the people in his state that he's against the climate bill that in his ad he loads a rifle and points at a copy of the legislation.

"I'll take dead aim," Manchin says right before he pulls the trigger, "at the cap-and-trade bill, because it's bad for West Virginia."

Climate In Campaign Ads

Climate legislation is taking a beating this election cycle. Below is a sampling of ads: from West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat running for Senate, and one targeting Robin Carnahan, a Democrat who's trying to win a Senate seat in Missouri.

YouTube
YouTube

"Pulling out a firearm and shooting it through a piece of legislation is kind of a degree of drama that I have not seen in a campaign ad previously," says Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for American Crossroads, a conservative political action committee.

Manchin's spokeswoman explains that West Virginians despise cap and trade because their state's economy is dependent on coal, and the bill was designed to make people use fewer fossil fuels. But the fact that Democrats in states from Georgia to the Dakotas also ran ads against it underscores that the climate bill is a political liability elsewhere as well.

'A Defining Issue'

The legislation would set limits on greenhouse gas pollution and create a new market where companies could buy and sell the right to pollute. Collegio says support for cap and trade became costly for Democrats because Republicans successfully rebranded it as a tax on energy.

"That's not going to be something that resonates with the average American voter, especially folks in a state like Missouri where the economy is not well and you're talking about raising energy bills," Collegio says.

One of American Crossroads' anti-cap-and-trade ads targets Robin Carnahan, a Democrat who's trying to win a Missouri Senate seat.

"Why would Carnahan support an Obama cap-and-trade bill — vast new energy taxes that could cost families $2,200 a year more, and cost Missouri 32,000 jobs?" the ad says.

Still, Anthony Leiserowitz, a research scientist and director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, was astounded to hear the legislation so frequently vilified.

"Who would have ever guessed that cap and trade or that climate change would become one of the defining issues that people would use in a political campaign? It's quite remarkable," Leiserowitz says.

That's because his polling shows that most Americans don't even know what cap and trade is. Despite this, Leiserowitz says, it has become a litmus test, especially for conservatives and Tea Party candidates.

"And not just cap and trade, but now even questioning the existence of climate change itself," says Leiserowitz.

Disputing The Science

Manchin's opponent in West Virginia, John Raese, is one of a long list of Republicans denying global warming as a way to try to win votes. He brought up the issue in a recent debate against Manchin:

"But when you look at the myth, I say myth that there is global warming and then the other myth that man causes global warming, I think that really differentiates me from other candidates — because I don't believe in that myth," Raese said.

Some Democrats are standing up for action on climate change and trying to expose their opponents as members of a flat earth society.

In a recent debate for a Rhode Island House seat, David Cicilline said the nation needs to come up with a solution for global warming.

"And we can't have a real discussion about it if you don't believe in it," Cicilline said to Republican John Loughlin.

"It's not something you believe in. It's not like the Easter bunny," Loughlin shot back.

"No. It's science," Cicilline said, referring to the fact that most scientists agree that man is contributing to global warming, especially by burning fossil fuels.

But Loughlin countered: "It's science and the scientific consensus is not there."

There is one place where shrinking global warming pollution remains popular: Polls predict voters in California will reject a ballot proposition that would have stalled the state's version of cap and trade.

But overall the issue is playing negatively.

Bill's Revival Doomed For Now

Republican pollster Frank Luntz says it's clear why the politics of climate change are so different than they were in 2008.

"What has changed is that the American economy went to hell. And when you ask voters are they more concerned about destroying their environment over the next 100 years or rehabilitating their economy over the next 100 weeks, they'll choose the economy over the environment any day," Luntz says.

But Democratic pollsters and environmental activists say the climate bill is just another victim of the GOP's successful strategy of saying "no" to President Obama's policies.

Supporters and opponents agree that all the negative attention it is getting now dooms any chance of a quick revival.

"The time for a comprehensive climate bill has come and gone, at least in the short term," says Sierra Club Political Director Cathy Duvall.

Even President Obama conceded this in a recent interview with the National Journal, and said he would keep pushing forward his clean energy agenda in "bite-sized pieces."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: