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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's interesting that one of the most serious environmental issues, climate change, has barely surfaced in the presidential race. President Obama has taken some steps to address climate change. Republican challenger Mitt Romney says he would not make it a priority in his administration. In our series Solve This, NPR's Richard Harris looks ahead to the very different ways climate change policy could go over the next four years, depending on who is elected president.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: As Mitt Romney stood on the stage to accept his nomination at the Republican National Convention, he made a rare mention of global warming, and he used it as a laugh line.

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MITT ROMNEY: President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet.

HARRIS: Romney promised an administration that would instead focus on taking care of American families. President Obama rebutted that comment at the Democratic National Convention a week later.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children's future, and in this election, you can do something about it.

HARRIS: In fact, Mr. Obama came into office with climate change as one of his major issues. At international talks in Copenhagen, he pledged to reduce U.S. emissions sharply by the year 2020. And he pressed to get more aggressive action out of China, India and the world's other biggest carbon dioxide emitters. But the president's plans didn't make it past strong Republican opposition in Congress. So, instead, he has settled for actions the president can take without congressional action.

CAROL BROWNER: First, there was the stimulus, which is the largest ever investment in clean energy technologies, really hoping to jump-start that sector.

HARRIS: Carol Browner is an adviser to the Obama campaign on energy and climate issues. She runs down a quick list.

BROWNER: The first-ever greenhouse gas standards for cars, the power plant requirements - new proposed power plant requirements, as well as more efficient appliances.

HARRIS: These don't add up to the 17 percent reduction the president aspired to at the Copenhagen climate talks. Browner says he will keep trying to make incremental changes. So this is an issue where the candidates sharply disagree. The president sees action on climate change as creating new jobs in the clean-energy sector. Romney sees cheap energy as the best energy. He doesn't even mention climate change in his energy plan, which is overwhelmingly about increasing production of fossil fuels. The Romney campaign would not provide a spokesman for this report. But the campaign's domestic policy adviser, Oren Cass, did address these issues at a debate at MIT, which was webcast by E&ETV.

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OREN CASS: Governor Romney's position on climate change is very straightforward, which is that the United States, taking action unilaterally, is not able to effectively address what is a global problem.

HARRIS: And since China is still building more coal-fired power plants every week, Cass argues having the U.S. cut emissions is a waste of effort. He also opposes what was once a Republican-backed idea: put a price on carbon pollution to encourage the free market to develop technologies that are better for human health and the global environment. He says pricing carbon won't work.

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CASS: What it is going to do is hurt our economy very seriously, and it's going to drive a lot of industrial activity from the United States to countries that are, frankly, much less efficient in their use of energy.

HARRIS: So, in essence, the Romney position is that climate change won't be a priority because it's too hard to solve. Romney says the government's response should be to fund research on climate science and renewable energy. That's a contrast with President Obama, who argues that developing clean energy is good for the U.S. economy and is an important step toward addressing what is perceived worldwide as a very serious issue. Richard Harris, NPR News.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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