“Reconciling industrial growth with climate change has become a clear and much more stark choice for Obama through his last term”
Hurricane Sandy brought climate change to the fore in a presidential race that had until then remained largely silent on the issue. But, according to Aditya Bahadur, a Baird’s CMC consultant who is also currently completing his PhD on climate change and policy processes at the Institute of Development Studies, this chatter needs to translate into tangible action if we are to see any progress on the climate change front. In the first part of this four-part series, we spoke with him about his thoughts on this year’s elections and whether an Obama presidency might help lead the charge.
What role did the issue of climate change play in this year’s American elections?
AB: The big message for me was that climate change was hardly mentioned in the presidential debates, which are one of the key forums in which the presidents lay out their policy positions on various issues. Most of the people who were hosting the debate also did not categorically ask the question about climate change and stayed away from it. Interestingly, it was mentioned tangentially in the whole debate around green jobs, which came up repeatedly at various points through the whole presidential race. Essentially, Romney was castigating Obama for sinking money into green jobs and by implication indicated that he will not be doing the same. So, as opposed to a more explicit stance for climate change by the incumbent president (which I was hoping for), the way in which climate change was mentioned was largely through Romney’s anti-climate change stance.
Was the role the issue of climate change played in this year’s election different than in the previous one? Was climate change mentioned more or less?
AB: I really think it has been very different than previous elections. There was a lot more explicit discussion about climate change the last time around Obama was running for president. This is not only because he was positing himself against Bush’s terrible track record on action on climate change but also because we were building up to the Copenhagen Climate Summit and all the big conventions that were happening, all of which has now lost steam. I also think that the economic crisis has led to certain realignment of priorities. Even though the crisis was precipitating when Obama came into office, I think the real implication of what is needed to battle it has sunk in now. And, for instance, one of Obama’s main policy initiatives has been the regeneration of the Detroit auto industry. So I guess reconciling industrial growth with climate change has become a clear and much more stark choice for Obama through his last term. I presume that is why there has been more silence on the issue this time around.
However, I feel Hurricane Sandy was a really important event because it led to a lot of the other people (such as the media) talking about climate change in the context of the election. So even though the presidential candidates were silent on the issue, other people noticed that they were silent because of Hurricane Sandy happening when it did. The timing was really unbelievable … Bloomberg’s stance on this issue became much more acute because of Sandy’s impact on the city.
How will we reconcile this economic crisis with the climate change issue? How do you think this will play out?
AB: That’s one of the big questions that still needs to be answered. Unfortunately, in wealthy places like America, what we don’t realize is that behind the scenes there is a very clear anti-climate change lobby that is always in operation … And therefore in the last two or three years, combined with the economic crisis, climate change issues have gone back into the background. But when these big storms hit New York City, then everyone has to sit up and take notice.
How do you feel the Obama presidency will impact the climate change landscape?
AB: To be honest I don’t have any high hopes for the Obama presidency and it’s impact on a greater movement for climate change, but of course we may well be surprised. That said, I think it’s positive because he’s far better than Romney, who had a more explicit anti-climate change stance.
In general, do you feel climate change is coming to the forefront as a discussion in the political landscape?
AB: No, I don’t think it is coming to the forefront of politics. In general, I think climate change, since it is so strongly linked to economic cycles and economic growth, is a far more politically contentious and therefore I am not that hopeful that it will come to the forefront of the political lansdcape. Especially in countries such as America, I don’t think it will. Even in the UK, it doesn’t figure very high up there. Where it does figure is in the domestic politics – interestingly, in the poorest countries such as Bangladesh, which are on the frontline in the battle against climate change, the issue is seeping into local-level politics.
And why is that? Why is there such a discrepancy between the industrialised versus the poorer countries in how they are engaging with climate change?
AB: The industrial countries do not feel the most impacts of climate change. They pollute, but the impacts are felt in the poorer countries where people do not have the necessary capacity to adapt to climatic change. So, for instance, in the Netherlands they have devised some really expensive engineering solutions to deal with sea-level rise—for example, houses that float with the level of the tide, built on extremely expensive stilts etc. But in Bangladesh, where they don’t have the capacity to do these technological interventions that cost a lot of money, the people feel the impacts in their daily life much more (through flooding, scarcity of water, etc). Therefore, if a political leader comes and says, ‘I’m going to help you deal with these climate change impacts better’, that automatically becomes an electoral issue.
Aditya Bahadur is completing his PhD from the University of Sussex on the politics of a climate change resilience policy process. Stay tuned to this blog for part 2 of this four-part series in which Bahadur discusses the hope on the horizon for the climate change community.