With the race to the White House heating up, it raises the question: where do the presidential candidates stand on global warming? In short, Obama is a global warming “believer” but has provided little substance to back his conviction and seldom talks about it. Romney, on the other hand, presents a wavering, sometimes mocking assessment on the severity of the issue.


In nearly four years in office, Obama has occasionally paid lip service to the “threat of climate change”, but has yet to use his bully pulpit to lay out the scientific case in a high-profile setting. He once in a while mentions climate change in passing, but has yet to discuss its causes, the evidence, and potential impacts in detail.

As a perfect example, at a speech in Charlottesville, Va. last week, Obama’s token reference to climate change was: “Denying climate change doesn’t make it stop.”

Obama has passed up opportunity after opportunity to discuss climate change science, including during his last State of the Union address.

For its part, the Democratic national platform fails to provide any detail about the science in its discussion of climate policy. It calls climate change “one of the biggest threats of this generation” and says it “affirm[s] the science of climate change”. But there’s no information about the specific risks climate change poses.

“The Obama Administration has never really tried to do much on the topic of climate change,” Michigan State sociology professor Aaron McCright told Discovery. “So, while protecting the environment and dealing with climate change is part of the general Democratic platform, it is not something that Obama has specifically pushed in his original campaign or at any time during his presidency.”


Romney’s position on climate change science has shifted around as Brad Plumer documents on the Wonk Blog:

As recently as June 2011, Romney was telling voters in New Hampshire that “the world’s getting warmer,” that “I believe that humans contribute,” and that “I think it’s important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases.”

Since then, however, Romney has softened his stance. “I don’t know if [rising temperatures are] mostly caused by humans,” he told another New Hampshire crowd last summer.

The website ScienceDebate.org, sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences and other scientific organizations, has posed questions on 14 science policy issues to both presidential candidates. Romney’s comments on climate change science in his response to the question on climate policy, offers his clearest take on the issue I’ve seen yet:

I am not a scientist myself, but my best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences. However, there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue — on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution, and the severity of the risk — and I believe we must support continued debate and investigation within the scientific community.

Ultimately, the science is an input to the public policy decision; it does not dictate a particular policy response.

(Obama did not address the science in his response)

Despite Romney’s thoughtful response, his much-publicized mockery of Obama’s promise to slow sea level rise last week calls into question whether he takes the issue seriously.

“President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans — [bites lip and pauses for audience laughter(!)] — and to heal the planet,” Romney said at the Republican National Convention (RNC). “MY promise is to help you and your family.”

ThinkProgress writes the Obama camp responded to Romney’s comment with this scathing response:

It is nothing short of terrifying to imagine a party that openly mocks climate change taking back the White House.

Language in the GOP platform further suggests climate is not high on the Romney/Republican agenda. It does not explicitly discuss climate change except to criticize Obama for classifying it as a national security concern. It says:

...the [Obama] strategy ... elevates “climate change” to the level of a “severe threat” equivalent to foreign aggression. The word “climate,” in fact, appears in the current President’s strategy more often than Al Qaeda, nuclear proliferation, radical Islam, or weapons of mass destruction...

Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, has gone as far to challenge the motives of climate scientists who have published academic papers on manmade warming. Wonkbook’s Brad Plumer writes:

Ryan’s suggestion that scientists have tried to “intentionally mislead the public” is a charge without much evidence.


Neither candidate has made talking about the science of climate change and the risks it presents a priority. Obama purports to take the issue very seriously but appears unwilling or afraid to address the issue substantively front and center. Romney is a moving target on the issue but his RNC speech and choice of running mate make clear he has significant reservations about the seriousness of the risks posed by global warming.

Update: Some more viewpoints/reactions on Romney vs. Obama on science here -

Obama and Romney Weigh in on Science Questions (NY Times, Andy Revkin’s DotEarth)

Romney vs. Obama in the ScienceDebate (Roger Pielke Jr. blog)