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Expert Comment: The US presidential election, energy geographies and the politics of climate change

US Flag Tuesday 11 September 2012

Two of the biggest challenges facing the world are energy and climate change. The way we use energy is not sustainable, with around 85% of our energy being derived from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. This results in vast quantities of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere.

The continued emissions of carbon dioxide have altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere, which has been blamed for causing anthropogenic climate change. These issues will have substantial impacts on not just our way of life but also life itself.

The Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has laid out his energy plans. He states that if elected as President he will make the USA “energy independent” by 2020 and create three million jobs in the process. Mitt Romney’s plans involve eliminating the reliance on imported oil and gas and lifting offshore drilling regulations.

There is little focus in the Republican candidate’s plans on renewable resources such as solar and wind power. While the incumbent President and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama does discuss the role of renewable energy more, he does not discuss how the United States should address climate change in detail. This poses questions as to why the presidential candidates are not campaigning on climate change.   

Climate change is a divisive subject in the United States. Previous studies have highlighted the relationship between people who consider climate change to be an important issue and their voting choices. Acceptance of the scientific consensus on climate change is viewed as an alignment with liberal views consistent with other issues that divide the country such as gun control and healthcare.

With the subject of climate change science and addressing climate change being an extremely controversial one in America this translates into a lack of political willingness to discuss and debate the issue, let alone do anything about it. Instead, climate change will remain in the campaign background and instead the focus will be on the US economy, jobs and the contrast between the two candidates.

At the Democratic National Convention in September, President Obama did make reference to climate change, stating that: "My plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet - because climate 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."

These political discussions and policies illustrate how the politics of climate change influence opportunities for green growth as well as the effectiveness of governments to address climate change.

The disruption of the climate is having increasingly direct impacts on both the physical and human environments. Addressing climate change will only be successful if major economies such as the USA, Canada, China, Brazil and India undertake mitigation and adaptation measures. These measures include diversifying the way in which countries generate energy.

The task to address climate change is extremely complex as the shift away from fossil fuels to more sustainable energy sources faces considerable technical and economic challenges as well as political disputes. The first step is agreeing on what can and should be done, before any action is taken. Only then will climate change start to be addressed. 

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