When Obama was elected US president in 2008, environmentalists hoped he would champion their causes. Now after a disappointing four years, neither of the candidates is making big environmental promises.
With economic and social issues dominating political discussions,voters and presidential candidates alike are downplaying the environment in the US. According to the Pew Research Council, those who say that the environment is a "top priority" for the president and Congress this year dropped to 43 percent this January from 57 percent in January 2007. The economy, jobs and the budget deficit top the list.
"This election by both candidates is being framed around the US economy," Daniel Kammen, a professor of public policy in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley, told DW, "which is often what happens in bad economic times."
When President Barack Obama and his opponent, Mitt Romney, do touch on the environment, it's in terms of new jobs or energy independence.
"I have a plan to create 12 million new jobs," Romney told the audience at the Republican National Convention in August. "First, by 2020, North America will be energy independent by taking full advantage of our oil and coal and gas and nuclear and renewables."
That kind of talk might sway voters fatigued by years of relatively high unemployment, but it doesn't hold up as sound long-term environmental policy, according to Kammen.
"Romney has indicated really little or no interest in being a clean-energy leader. He's really said that more natural gas in particular and more business as usual are the primary parts of his ticket."
Obama's fracking problem
The mix of energy sources described by Romney is known as an "all-of-the-above" approach. While Obama has also become an "all-of-the-above" politician, pushing for more natural gas, which produces less greenhouse gas emissions than oil or coal. The US Energy Information Administration says the US has some 862 trillion cubic feet of shale gas reserves.
Getting to the gas though requires hydraulic fracturing or fracking, where water, chemicals and sand are pumped into a well which causes the rock bed to crack and release the natural gas. It's unpopular with environmentalists because it requires large quantities of water and there are concerns it could cause groundwater contamination and earthquakes.
But fracking is big business in key swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and Obama's support of the practice is seen as key to his popularity among union voters there.
"I'm a big promoter of natural gas as a way for us to reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources but also to create jobs," Obama said in a radio interview in Ohio in early September. The key, he added, "is to make sure that it's done safely."
Romney, too, is a fan of fracking, but cites Obama's calls for government monitoring as evidence of his ambivalence toward the technique. Romney also proposes opening up areas off the coast of North and South Carolina and Virginia for oil drilling and giving states control over energy production on federal lands. He has also vowed not to renew tax credits for wind farm projects, something Courtney Hight, the Sierra Club's deputy political director and a former Obama campaigner, said would eliminate about 40,000 jobs and "decrease America's ability to be a leader in the clean energy sector."
According to Hight, Romney's "economic policy is drill more, deregulate and pollute more," adding that "there's a clear choice for the American people right now."
But for some, Obama's term has been disappointing. According to Kammen, "there have been few successes" for environmental policy under Obama.
The few bright spots, Kammen said, include pushing through new vehicle efficiency standards and pollution standards. But these measures were meant to be part of a bigger environmental package, he said, including a comprehensive energy and climate change plan.
For Kammen the biggest setback was the foundering of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, also known as the Waxman-Markey bill. The bill would have established a cap-and-trade program limiting greenhouse gas emissions. It passed the House of Representatives, but never came up for a vote in the Senate, effectively killing it.
The bill was weakened by compromise and failed to elicit support even from some environmental groups. For conservative environmentalists like Jim DiPeso, policy director of ConservAmerica, it was everything a climate bill shouldn't be.
"It was too big, too complicated, way too cumbersome, and with too many unintended consequences," he told DW. "What we'd like to see is something simpler, something that is less bureaucratic, and a policy that harnesses market forces."
DiPeso said that ConervAmerica hopes to steer the Republican party back to what he calls it's conservation tradition. He's looking for policy proposals that address environmental issues like climate change without derailing economic growth or expanding the government unnecessarily.
"What we need are conservative solutions on the table," he said. "The American people are not well served by having only one set of solutions." Asked whether he believed Romney would provide some of these alternative solutions, DiPeso said he was heartened by the Republican candidate's recent acknowledgement of the role of human activity in climate change on the website, but that it remained to be seen what actions Romney might take if elected.
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