Much has been made today in Brussels of the fact that Europe did not feature at all in last night's US presidential debate focused on foreign policy, save for a passing reference to the US “following the path of Greece” made by challenger Mitt Romney.
But there was an even more glaring omission – climate change. In fact, last night's third and final presidential debate marked an ignoble milestone. The subject of climate change was not brought up in a single debate in this election season. It is the first time this has happened since the US Congress was first warned about climate change in 1988.
In total, the three presidential and one vice-presidential debate managed to rack up 6 hours of policy discussion without ever mentioning climate change, proving just how politically toxic American politicians now view the subject. Ever since an anti-government fuelled Republican takeover of the US Congress in the 2010 forced the withdrawl of the cap-and-trade bill, climate change has vanished from the lips of both Democrats and Republicans. The only time it has been heard during this election is when Republicans deride the Democratic attempt to saddle industry with red tape, or when Mitt Romney mockingly alludes to Obama's attempts to “slow the rise of the oceans.”
This contrasts sharply with the prominence the subject had in the 2008 presidential election, when both Obama and his Republican challenger John McCain supported action on climate change. McCain even co-sponsored cap-and-trade legislation in 2003 and 2007.
The subject's complete absence from this campaign has left green campaigners exasperated. Former Vice President Al Gore tweeted last night: "Where is global warming in this debate? Climate change is an urgent foreign policy issue."
The American abandonment of the issue is having a real effect on EU policy at the moment. On so many issues, I am told time and time again by people within the Commission that they are “waiting on the US election” before they take this or that step. Everything from the aviation-in-ETS dispute to the UN climate negotiations to the biodiversity talks rests on the election results.
Their implication is clear: a Romney presidency will mean the EU will not have an American partner for climate action. Romney has made his opposition to climate action quite clear. But what is not clear is what a second Obama term would mean. Brussels appears to be betting that the Obama Administration's lack of action on climate over the past two years is explained by political pressures that will be gone after the election on 6 November. The expectation seems to be that everything would change with a 'freed' Obama on 7 November. That is, if he is re-elected.
But this may be wishful thinking. An Obama second term will almost certainly still struggle against a climate-sceptic Republican congress after the election, barring some kind of election miracle that puts the congress back in Democratic control. Political observers say any prospect of a US cap-and-trade scheme is therefore still dead for the foreseeable future. This also goes for any increased willingness to sign up for binding climate agreements internationally.
Julian Hunt, a former chief executive of the UK Meteorological Office and a member of the British House of Lords, told me earlier this month that even Democrats feel unable to talk about climate action in the current climate in Washington. “If I go to America, people say ‘we can't talk about this [climate change] here, we'll have to go to the Starbucks across the road,” he told me. “It's like when I used to go to the Soviet Union, the civil servants could lose their job if they talk about what is a very sensitive subject.”
He contrasted this with his visits to China, where they are talking about their actions to fight climate change “in a very open way”. If you contrast China's new five-year plan with plans in place in America, China appears to have far more plans to reduce emissions than the United States.
It may be that whoever is elected president in the US on 6 November, Europe needs to start looking East for partners on climate rather than West. Because even as China moves ahead, even that may not be enough to pressure the US into action.
“In the past they've said we're not going to do anything if China doesn't,” Hunt told me. “Now that China is clearly going to, one hopes that the US will respond. But the signs are very discouraging at the moment. Nobody can even talk about it.”
I will explore these issues in more detail in the European Voice special report on climate change, to appear in this Thursday's edition of the paper.
Dave Keating reports on the interrelated issues of environment, energy, climate change, transport, health, agriculture, fisheries and research for European Voice. In this blog, Dave brings you insights into the sometimes byzantine world of European Union policymaking as well as the equally confusing nature of life in Brussels. Originally from outside New York City, Dave has lived in Europe for six years. He can be reached at DaveKeating@economist.com.
More in environment
Analysts reveal that many of the energy-intensive industries resisting changes to the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) are making a profit from the system.
The Commission's plan to bring water supply under public procurement rules is worrying local governments
Cities can take measures to cut pollution, but sometimes the problem is out of their hands