Global Warming Has Finally Come Up in Michigan… but don't get too excited yet

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Whichever way the Michigan Republican primary goes–and we’ll know soon enough–something very noteworthy has occurred on the climate and energy front.

Due to this particular dynamics of this race, which has been set in the backyard of the ailing American auto industry just after the U.S. Congress voted to increase corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, the two frontrunners John McCain and Mitt Romney have been trading multiple barbs over climate and energy policy.

And so Romney has claimed (very shortsightedly, in my view) that the new raise in fuel economy standards will hurt Detroit, costing it jobs–and of course, this is a bill John McCain voted for.

Similarly, Romney has slammed McCain for supporting a cap-and-trade bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, calling it a “job killer.” Again–misleading words, but at least these kinds of subjects are coming front and center in the campaign finally.

In fact, insofar as Michigan may further the candidate winnowing process, it could also help determine whether or not we wind up with two final presidential candidates, the Democrat and the Republican, who make action on climate change a top priority–or with only one (the Democrat). Which is as important as all hell–but not, for the moment, what centrally interests me.

Instead, right now I want to discuss more generally how information about science and technology policy–including climate science and technology policy–has been reaching American voters in the context of the present electoral season. Thus far, as has been oft noted, the attention to global warming by the media during the campaign has been dismal. Ditto for the attention paid to science policy issues in general.

Thanks to Michigan, though, that has changed–at least temporarily. I mean, you only had to tune in to the Sunday talk shows over the weekend to see it in action.

Here’s Mitt Romney talking to CBS‘s Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation”:

SCHIEFFER: Well, are you talking about government subsidies for Michigan? What exactly are you talking specifically of doing for Michigan?

Mr. ROMNEY: Well, as an example, investing substantially more in basic science and research. We invest about $4 billion a year is all in science relating to energy and fuel technology and material science, and yet we’re buying $400 billion a year worth of oil from other people. We should be investing far more money in fuel technologies, automotive technologies. We can do it here in Michigan and in other places where there’re science centers. Those new technologies can be bled off and spun out into the private sector, creating automobiles and other transportation vehicles we can’t even dream of today that will propel a strong and vibrant future. But the only way a great nation like ours stays ahead of a very populous nation like China–or even Korea, for that matter, where they have low labor cost, is by investing in technology and innovation and leading the world in the development of new products. And we are frankly lagging behind.

However, I don’t feel too much like rejoicing that such subjects are finally coming up in Michigan. Sure it’s beneficial–but it’s also more or less accidental.

The mass media are only asking questions about these issues now because of the sharp divide between the candidates on climate and energy policy–not because they care intrinsically about these subjects or views them as natural topics for sustained campaign coverage. And that’s why I and a group of others have been supporting a push, called ScienceDebate2008, to deliberately inject science policy matters–and especially global warming–into the U.S. presidential election in a systematic way.

The idea is that since these kinds of topics clearly aren’t arising naturally on the campaign trail–except in specific circumstances, such as the Michigan primary–there ought to be a specific mass media event, in debate format, devoted to them. After all, it would be simply irresponsible to elect a new U.S. president without knowing enough about how he or she thinks about the politics and policies of science and technology–given the centrality of both to the U.S. future, as well as to the ways in which we attempt to deal with crises like global warming.

But while ScienceDebate2008 has garnered dramatic support since its launch–check out the roster of distinguished endorsers of the project if you don’t believe me, or the roster of supporting bloggers, or the literally thousands of individuals who have offered their endorsements–it still faces an uphill battle. The clock is ticking, the field of candidates is shrinking, and whether the remaining contenders will make time for a science debate after Super Tuesday (February 5) remains to be seen.

And there’s another problem as well: Despite the fact that science and technology are the common theme that tie together a wide range of policy issues, interest groups too rarely see things that way. For instance, environmental groups want to hear the candidates talk about global warming, not about science–even though a candidate who gets science will get global warming, too.

Some of us are working at cross purposes here, and we ought to be on the same team.

So whoever wins in Michigan, neither science nor environmental advocates–sadly, they are still different bunches of folks at the moment–ought to be happy that our issues finally came up. We have a right to demand a far more extensive and concerted discussion of them before final votes are cast in November, and we shouldn’t let up now.

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