Hurricane Sandy and other extreme weather events like this year’s droughts and record temperatures have made the lack of discussion about climate change during the presidential election season even more jarring.  Why have politicians become so afraid to approach the issue?  Is this changing?  We discussed this problem on the Al Jazeera English TV program “Inside Story: US 2012” on October 30, on a panel with Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann and Joe Romm from the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.  Good questioning by Inside Story presenter Shihab Rattansi.

Al Jazeera website

Inside Story: US 2012 — Climate dialogue runs aground

Prof. Michael Mann, climatologist at Pennsylvania University and author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, discussed the increased odds of extreme climatic events due to climate change.  He also talked about how a mixed bag of climate contrarians, denialists, and political operatives have sought to undermine support for policy action using attacks on climate science as well as personal attacks on climate scientists.

Joe Romm, ace blogger at Climate Progress, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and author of the recently published Language Intelligence, talked about the connection between the fossil fuel industry and the global warming disinformation campaign.  Using the justified public anger in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, fossil fuel interests and individuals like the Koch brothers funded a political arm that they could use to attack ‘big government’ and bludgeon politicians who might support climate legislation and regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.  Used as a weapon during political primaries, these groups now have forced the Republican Party more toward the right.  Romm said, “There is no question on the Republican side of the aisle they were pulled to the right by the threat of being primaried by some Tea Party extremist.” Romm also emphasized the failure of the Obama administration and Democratic leaders to articulate a strong and coherent message on climate change and provide effective leadership in mobilizing popular support for action.

Following are CSW director Rick Piltz’s question-and-answer segments from the program:

Al Jazeera: It’s very striking that there isn’t much doubt when it comes to organizations like insurance companies (Munich Re study) and those in charge of our national security, and yet somehow the complexity of climate science or the fact you can’t definitively link a climate event with climate change — is that what gives skeptics room to pounce?

RP:  What I would call the Global Warming Denial Machine — I don’t say ‘skeptics’ because all good scientists and intellectuals are skeptics, they want to see the evidence — but the global warming denial machine has a predatory relationship with scientific uncertainty.  Part of their strategy is to manufacture an enhanced sense of uncertainty because they have a political agenda to ward off strong climate policy, regulation of greenhouse gases, strong international agreements and so forth.

AJ: But as far as the science is concerned, it’s not to much whether humans are having an effect, it’s how much of an effect humans are having.  Is that the main sort of discussion?

RP: There are all sorts of scientific issues that need research.  We need a strong research program. A lot of work now needs to be done on understanding the timing and magnitude of a wide range of harmful impacts. But there’s more than enough from the most credible climate science experts to drive a much stronger policy, a much more coherent policy than we have right now.  Scientists have identified, characterized a problem, diagnosed a problem, but it has to be dealt with in a completely different arena — a political, a public arena where different kinds of agendas are running that are either indifferent to or antithetical to science.

AJ: There have been exposes recently that have delineated the strategy of various actors here in Washington to play on that.  To foster a sense of doubt where there is none.

RP: Yes, and it goes back to the 1990s.  It goes back to when global warming became an important issue in the policy arena. But it particularly ramped up in a very virulent and aggressive way from 2009 onward when it appeared the system was ready to tackle climate change as a policy and management problem with legislation, regulation, diplomatic agreements.  We saw a ferocious counterattack that’s driven by corporate energy interests that don’t want to be regulated; it’s driven by wealthy right-wing ideologues who pay for these policy operatives and sort of court jester fake scientists and so forth to carry a message for them. But you need to look at the power elite, the money that’s behind it.”

AJ: So we have this interesting combination, then, of the fossil fuel industry and then the right-wing think tanks have long been here, are not a recent phenomenon, but who heard the similar distrust of big government and regulation, which is music to their years.  And perhaps there were slotting in this anti-science movement into their broader agenda of less government and regulation.  Is that what was going on here?

RP: Yes, and I think their sense is that if they concede on the science, even though it is pretty well established in its fundamentals, that they sort of lose the moral high ground, they will go down a slippery slope to a stronger government role in either reducing greenhouse gas emissions, adaptive preparedness for the climate change impacts — which we now are seeing, the shortages in our system on adaptive preparedness for extreme events and severe weather.

AJ: If they start here, where will it end?  Their entire philosophy is under threat, essentially.

RP: Well yes, and they’ll say, ‘this is a left-wing big government agenda,’ but in fact whether you’re coming up with billions of dollars for disaster relief or you’re putting some money into scientific research, preparedness, and mitigation, there has to be a role for government.  The unregulated free market is not going to get us where we need to go on climate change.  You need regulation, you need multilateral international agreements, and you need to reign in unregulated corporate power.  It’s a political battle that has to be waged.

I think the White House can see that there is a potential reservoir of public support for a stronger policy, but they haven’t chosen to take up that battle.  I think that public opinion is soft. I mean, its not like there are massive demonstrations like there were against the war in Vietnam.  It’s not like the scientists are holding ‘teach ins’ in Washington DC to challenge the government.  Public opinion hasn’t been organized and mobilized.  Students aren’t shutting down Harvard University the way they did during Vietnam.  So public opinion doesn’t add up to enough unless you have a politically organized public opinion pushing on the government.

AJ: It’s interesting to see how the narrative switched in the last few years and actually you both have talked about Republican figures in particular.  We’ve had silence on the Democratic party for the last few years, but the Republican party you can really see how they’ve switched. It’s almost like they are hugely threated by President Obama’s agenda, given that he’s actually really not done that much on this issue that would affect the fossil fuel industry.

RP: Nor has he fundamentally challenged them. Look at what he’s doing now.  He doesn’t even so much talk about clean energy as the ‘All of the Above’ energy strategy.  I think you have to look at the differences within the corporate power elite.  At the beginning of the Obama administration there was a coalition of some of the environmental groups and a coalition of corporate moderates, a number of corporations ready to move on climate policy that would support a moderate regulatory regime, cap-and-trade regime and so forth.  That’s not the hard over, right-wing ideologue billionaires.  It’s not the hard over coal companies and ExxonMobils. So you need to analyze the differences within the corporate power structure because they aren’t monolithic on this. But Obama has not fundamentally challenged corporate power on this.

AJ: Do you have a vision on a second term, if he is elected, on these issues?

RP: That’s a good empirical question.  I have the sense that if Obama is re-elected, we are going to see a battle with the right wing that will make the Bill Clinton impeachment follies look like some kind of ‘era of good feelings.’  This is going to be nasty in American politics one way or the other.  Whether he will become a champion who rallies the base and gets them to go after the entrenched power interests, we will see.  That has not really been his style.  My own personal feeling is ‘what we see is what we get.’  We know what Obama is.  We are going to get a centrist kind of governance that at least is civilized and not anti-science and will take some steps [in the right direction on climate change].”

Earlier posts:

“Climate of Doubt” — Money Buys Skepticism

Climate change: Winning issue or losing battle?

“Obama and the Politics of Climate Science Communication”

Have multinationals hijacked Rio+20? (Al Jazeera Inside Story)

Questions on US climate and environmental policy in an election year (Al Jazeera Inside Story)