Climate change gets big laugh at US Republican convention

One of the biggest laugh lines in Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last week came toward the end, just before the balloons and confetti fell. The Republican nominee alluded to US President Barack Obama’s 2008 convention speech, in which he “promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet.”

Romney’s raised eyebrow and pitying expression wordlessly conveyed the punch line to his chortling audience: That’s funny, because there’s no such thing as climate change. The joke got one of the biggest laughs of the night. This was the same crowd that earlier in the evening went wild over Dirty Harry scolding an empty chair. You have to give Romney credit for understanding his audience’s decidedly specific tastes.

Mitt cracks wise.

The crack was one of the only fleeting references to climate change at the convention in Tampa, Florida, even as Hurricane Isaac forced organisers to hastily rearrange the schedule and the home states of many delegates wither and shrivel from drought.

I watched the convention on a visit to the US that included a stop in Missouri, one of the states hardest hit by the drought. The once-mighty Missouri River is shrinking from its shores; the cornfields along the highway are dead. It’s hard to understand how anyone could argue that climate change doesn’t have a real and immediate effect on the lives of average Americans.

An American voter can read competing proposals from the Romney and Obama campaigns on health care, education and taxes. That same voter cannot compare their policies on climate change, however, because Romney doesn’t have one.

The Republicans have chosen to ignore climate change in this election – or more precisely, dismiss it as a joke. As a result, in the year 2012 the candidates for America’s highest office are not debating what should be done about climate change, but whether it exists.

Romney’s position paper on energy independence does not once mention climate change or global warming, focusing instead on the security and economic implications of decreasing America’s dependence on foreign oil and other natural resources.

The environment is not listed in the “issues” section of his campaign website. (China and East Asia are mentioned, but that’s the subject of another post.) The official Republican platform (thanks Grist for the highlights) goes a step farther, placing its single reference to “climate change” in dismissive quotation marks, disparaging declarations from environmental summits like Rio and opposing all efforts by the US Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide.

Romney’s stance on the issue has changed considerably from his days as governor of Massachusetts, when he released a plan to control the state’s carbon emissions, and even since last summer, when he told a crowd of voters “I believe humans contribute” to global warming.

Today, his speeches and policies reflect the Republican position that environmental regulation is a Democrat-supported obstacle to American growth and jobs. The environmental risks of drilling for oil, for example, or of fracking, pale in comparison to the danger posed to America’s middle class if the economic benefit from those practises is not realised.

It’s what Philip Bump of Grist calls “a classic false choice” – either America can worry about things like climate change, or it can invest its energy in economic growth. Why not have the courage to merge the two ideas? What about the threat climate change poses to the markets of future generations? What about the economic opportunities of renewable energies? (In fairness to Romney, he did mention renewables in his acceptance speech, but the word was drowned out by applause for his promise to exploit US oil, coal and gas reserves.)

There’s nothing new about the Republican omertà against global warming. But it’s a sign of how miserably unevolved the discussion of climate change remains in the United States in 2012, when one major political party refuses to acknowledge the reality of a warming planet and the other shows little desire to engage in the difficult and complicated work of moving beyond rhetoric to action.

It will be interesting to see how Democrats balance talk of climate change at their convention in North Carolina this week with the inconvenient truth that for all the soaring words, Obama has done hardly anything to follow up on those grand promises of 2008.

Image credit: Treehugger