Mitt Romney: Climate change is real, but addressing it would be wrong

Science Debate is a group that's working to get political candidates in the United States actually talking publicly about issues of science and technology policy. In 2008, they tried (and failed) to get Barak Obama and John McCain to agree to a live, televised science debate. But they did get both candidates to send in written answers to 14 key questions.

This election cycle, Science Debate sent out a new set of 14 questions—all chosen from a crowdsourced list. Today, they announced that they'd gotten answers back from both Obama and Mitt Romney. You can compare the candidates side-by-side at the Science Debate website. I have to say that, while I disagree with a lot of Romney's conclusions, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of thought and time his staff clearly put into writing some very long and detailed responses.

Perhaps most surprising was his response to a question about climate change. Instead of attempting to flatly deny the evidence, Mitt Romney has apparently moved on to acknowledging that climate change is happening—while simultaneously overplaying the uncertainty surrounding specific risks, and claiming that even if climate change is a big problem there's nothing we can really do about it anyway ... because China.

Personally, I think that's pretty interesting. Climate scientists, and the journalists who write about them, have been talking, anecdotally, about seeing this exact rhetorical shift happening in conservative circles. It seems that the Republican presidential nominee is now one of the people who acknowledge climate change exists, but would still rather not take any decisive steps to deal with it.

I happen to think that's a dumb position. After all, even if the United States can't stop climate change alone, the kinds of policies that would reduce our dependence on fossil fuels would also help us adapt and thrive despite climate shifts and fossil fuel depletion. But this is still a step in the right direction. As several climate scientists I've spoken with have said, we can disagree on the policy. But it's high time we stop pretending that we can't see the changes happening all around us.

Mitt Romney: 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.

President Obama has taken the view that if global warming is occurring, the American response must be to slash carbon dioxide emissions by imposing enormous costs on the U.S. economy. First he tried a massive cap-and-trade bill that would have devastated U.S. industry. When that approach was rejected by Congress, he declared his intention to pursue the same course on his own and proceeded through his EPA to impose rules that will bankrupt the coal industry.

Nowhere along the way has the President indicated what actual results his approach would achieve — and with good reason. The reality is that the problem is called Global Warming, not America Warming. China long ago passed America as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. Developed world emissions have leveled off while developing world emissions continue to grow rapidly, and developing nations have no interest in accepting economic constraints to change that dynamic. In this context, the primary effect of unilateral action by the U.S. to impose costs on its own emissions will be to shift industrial activity overseas to nations whose industrial processes are more emissions-intensive and less environmentally friendly. That result may make environmentalists feel better, but it will not better the environment. So I oppose steps like a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system that would handicap the American economy and drive manufacturing jobs away, all without actually addressing the underlying problem. Economic growth and technological innovation, not economy-suppressing regulation, is the key to environmental protection in the long run. So I believe we should pursue what I call a “No Regrets” policy — steps that will lead to lower emissions, but that will benefit America regardless of whether the risks of global warming materialize and regardless of whether other nations take effective action.

For instance, I support robust government funding for research on efficient, low-emissions technologies that will maintain American leadership in emerging industries. And I believe the federal government must significantly streamline the regulatory framework for the deployment of new energy technologies, including a new wave of investment in nuclear power. These steps will strengthen American industry, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and produce the economically-attractive technologies that developing nations must have access to if they are to achieve the reductions in their own emissions that will be necessary to address what is a global issue.

Also, it's worth noting that we've used a cap and trade system in the United States before. When we did, it not only worked well, it did the job way more cheaply than anyone had guessed.

Remember acid rain? That's caused by sulfur dioxide emissions, produced largely by burning coal. We drastically reduced those emissions (making our air cleaner, people healthier, and ecosystems safer) through a cap and trade system that went into effect in 1995. At the time, according to management consulting firm McKinsey and Company, analysts thought it would cost between $3 and $25 billion to clean up America's skies. Instead, it cost about $1.4 billion.

That's because things like cap and trade aren't really about the government choosing winners and losers. Instead, it's about letting government do what it does best—i.e., setting national priorities that allow us to take long-term action on issues that affect all Americans—and then letting industry do what it does best. When government sets the priorities, industries will find ways to meet those priorities cheaply.


  1. In the big scheme of things, it’s not a problem for the Earth if the climate changes, as it has done many times in the last four billion years. It just affects us humans, as we tend to build houses near the shorelines. So Romney’s position is admirable for allowing him to see the big picture.

    1. Your attempt to take the long view is admirable, but I’d prefer a solution where us humans come out relatively unscathed.

      1. Sadly, the sarcasm in your post was overlooked because it is a vastly more coherent argument on the subject than we typically hear from the American right.

        1. True. The only sarcastic thing I wrote is that Romney is able to see the big picture. The rest is unadulterated truth.

          1.  After that “Communist in the White House” number, it’s hard to tell what it sarcasm and what is a deranged politician’s view. Most people’s meters are on the fritz.

          2. That seems a very narrow view. We are not just making things bad for people: we are reducing the flexibility of the biosphere. It *is* possible for our species to permanently reduce the complexity and richness of life on Earth, and we may well be on the way to doing so.  Take a look around the solar system and see how actually fragile and special our planet is.

    2.  Yeah. Like George Carlin once said.  Don’t worry about saving the planet,  It  will be fine, Its humans that are going away.  THe earth will shake us off like the common cold.

      1. Even us humans probably won’t disappear (other than that everybody dies eventually), but the wars and upheaval in the mean time are going to be incredibly costly.

        Of course the people profiting from that will be a couple of warmongering companies with their fingers deep in the GOP.

          1. Wouldn’t you like to think that the species that invented altruism might also apply it? Or do you think that the other strands in the ecological web that are collapsing as a result of our lack of foresight somehow don’t matter?

          2.  >Gerald ManderOne would hope, but the reality we have gotten this far not by survival of the fittest individual but by survival of the fittest clan, and with negotiated peace between clans to form states.  The 1% are essentially a clan these days, and they are pretty damn fit.  They will survive global warming and therefore don’t seem to give a shit about the rest of us.  I am afraid Negotiations have been at a stand still.  A few more summers like this one will change that though.

        1. Just formatting the biosphere. In a couple scores of millions of years no one would be able to notice the difference

    3. The Republican party machine opposes teaching evolution because opposing it brings in some specific voting blocks and teaches the public to distrust science.  But they oppose teaching about climate change because their corporate sponsors don’t want any legislation that will affect their businesses, and the party takes that much more seriously.

  2. There’s parts of what he said that I actually agree with.  Naturally I’d go further; I think it makes a lot of sense for government to do stimulus spending for new, clean energy production and technologies – it helps the problem (possibly advancing technology far enough to approach a real solution, but at very least helps), creates good jobs, fosters solid industries for the future, and generally just seems like a good idea.  Sell it as “like the space race, but for energy” or something (America leading the world, something, something, something), and I think most Americans would get behind it.

    Anyways, I like it a lot better than the old position – and it’s probably as far left on this as he could have really gone.  Obviously it could be better, but this is good, good news I think.

    1.  This could go hand and hand with maintaining and improving infrastructure, as a modern jobs program and stimulus.  If only…

    2. Sell it as “like the space race, but for energy”

      I like that idea, but there were actually quite a few Americans who were outraged by the amount we spent on the first space race, too.

      1. Then I’m sure they never used or benefitted from the spinoff tech that fired the economy of the 70s and 80s. Heck they probably never drank Tang either.

        1. We all benefit from an educated populace too, but that doesn’t stop some people from bitching about having to pay for public schools. (“Just look at those smug teachers with their fancy-pantsy living wage and dental plans! It’s SOCIALISM.”)

    3. What Romney and the GOP say and what they do are two different things (as usual). This new angle makes for fine public talking points but as BillStewart says “their corporate sponsors don’t want any legislation” and there won’t be. 

      So just what is it that’s encouraging about what Romney said? Research funding? Does anyone seriously believe the GOP’d approve any significant govbucks going to any energy industry other than oil, coal and natural fracking? They beefed all over about Solyndra which was not a failed technology but a victim of falling energy prices.FYI, Science Debate is in large part run by Minnesota’s Shawn Otto who has written one of the best books on the current miserable relationship between science and politics, Fool Me Twice:

  3. I admire the Romney/Ryan campaign for keeping any shred of truth out of any of their messaging so far. It has, by far, been the most consistent that they have been on any issue.

     Complete Commitment To Complete Bullshit
             Romney 2012

  4. what is really bizarre is that during his time as governor he proposed applying a higher tax to vehicles that had higher emissions and lower MPG in order to encourage people to buy less polluting, more efficient vehicles.  This proposal was shot down by the left-leaning state legislature.

      1. It’s a socialist plot to prevent the right from feeling all warm and fuzzy and green while everyone else pays.

  5. As much as I think that whole party is a bunch of crazies, Mitt does have a point regarding China. This is the same rational regarding koyoto.

    We do not live in a vaccume, and without the big developing countries participation, all you do is restrict yourself economically, for likely marginal gains (if any).

    On the other side of the coin, that is how all the developed nations became economic powerhouses using cheap energy. It’s not exactly fair to say “well we’re all rich now, but see that it had evviromental impacts, so sorry too bad, you arn’t allowed to do that now”

    As much as it is an enviromental problem, it is more of an international political problem. Currenly deadlock, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

    I don’t see anything more than symbolic ever happing in this regard anytime in the near future.

    1. You’re right that it’s not fair, which is why a lot of those poorer developing nations would like aid from the rich ones when it comes to sustainable energy.  Of course, those rich countries either don’t want to pay, or are fighting about how to pay.  I remember that the U.S. shot down a proposed international financial transaction tax.  Having said that, despite running on dirty energy, China is spending billions *a month* on clean energy, which dwarfs U.S. and European investment.  When people start wanting massive amounts of clean energy products, they’ll be ready, the U.S. not so much.

      1. Romney is selling himself as a brilliant politician that will create million of jobs, then he should also know that buying technology of your rival can be an extremely costly business transaction an cost even more to leap ahead of them again. 

    2. If everybody keeps waiting for the other to take the first step, we’ll never get anywhere. At the moment, the US really is the biggest problem with respect to CO2 emissions. The average Chinese doesn’t have nearly as many cars as the average American.

      But when they do, well, let’s hope we’ve got much cleaner cars by then.

    3. Romney has staked out a do-nothing position. The only thing he supports is more study, which just means more delay. I agree that he’s right about China and other nations. But if we don’t take a leadership position than very little will be done.  At what point do we act? When the polar cap melts? 

      1. The Republicans can be so contradictory in nature, 
        Condoleezza Rice  said that America should lead from the front and yet on this issue the Republican seem happy to let the US  stand still and do nothing or even worst than nothing an reverse what ever movement forward that has been made by Obama. 

  6. The Problem is, that it is propably too late already. We are going along the worst estimates if you look at the latest numbers.  It seems that only quite radical measures can keep the temperature under the “magical” +2Celsius which would mean self-increasing feedback.
    That happens when you say “No, that is not possible” for a generation now.

  7. The more people generate their own power, water and food, the less this will be an issue. Plus with the price of them at the moment, the very real and tangible benefit is there to do so.

    It takes the power or focus from people who like to talk a lot about it and do nothing, and puts it in your hands. With the rising price of most fuel, it only makes sense to look for alternatives on that side of the coin also; best estimate is this will be a natural progression away from it being an issue. Provided people take the power into their own hands sooner.

    1.  Umm, no.  If every person on earth lived on enough land to produce their own food, we would have to cut down every forest and probably populate half of mars.  Micro power generation has some bennifits, but food production is better done en mas.

      1. Agree food is best done en mass, but if people got even a small garden, growing food can be stored for a while, such as berries, onions, herbs and there others does make sense and help you lower your own living costs a bit, it also relaxing, an it a good way teach kids about where food come from.

         Having a few chickens for eggs can be cost efficient,  a friend of my got two an they produce between 6 and 12 eggs a week an they do not cost much at all to maintain. Beyond that large scale farms are best, especially for stuff like cereals,  and even growing food in green houses. 

      2.  I think  it’s exactly the opposite.  There’s…what…hundreds of thousands of acres currently wasted on suburban lawns and golf courses?  Plenty of land for food.  Growing your own food: plausible.

        “generating” your own water?  Umm, that is not how water works.  Digging a well is difficult and very labor-intensive; rivers and lakes are great but you need to live near them and you need to purify the water somehow.  Water is pretty much always going to be a community deal, not an individual thing.  Catching rainwater or condensation might work in some climates but certainly not all.

        Micropower…think you’re overestimating how easy and useful micropower would be.  You’re not going to run a fridge off a hand-built turbine whereas a commercial turbine is not something you can build and service yourself.  Even for indoor lighting you’ll presumably need energy storage.  Good luck building your own batteries from scratch.  Your best bet is lead-acid batteries, which are incredibly heavy, chock full of toxic chemicals, and have a very low energy density to boot.

  8. I like jmzero’s concept of “the space race, but for energy.” I think a cleaner environment is an achievable goal locally and outward. To me, this type of approach is realistic, compared to thinking our 300-million person country alone can stop climate change for a 7-billion person world that won’t, or can’t, participate.

  9. I’m not sure what “climate change” is supposed to mean, but global warming is certainly well under way.

    1. I use the phrase “climate change” because I think it does a much better job of conveying what’s going on. The Earth, as a whole, is warming, but that doesn’t necessarily describe what’s happening at a local level. Change is a better and more accurate way to help people understand the the impacts that affect them, compared to “warming” which implies that the only result is an increase in temperature. 

    2.  We had to stop saying that because stupid people got confused every time there was a cold day or a lot of snow.

      Really we should call in Climactic Warming.  So as to say what it is, WARMING, but to be clear that is isn’t evenly distributed across time and geography..

  10. They’ve passed through Denial into Anger. I look forward to the Bargaining stage, where Mittens attempts to outsource the environment to China.

    1. Why not?  We already outsource a lot of our pollution to China.

      When people complain about how regulation is sending jobs overseas, this is what they’re talking about.  They aren’t allowed to poison the air/land/water in their home country and doing it cleanly would be more expensive, so they go to a place where they can pollute all they want with just a quick easy bribe to the local officials.

  11. Also in the Romney Plan: “Unemployment is real but addressing it would be wrong.” “Gun violence is real but addressing it would be wrong.” “My running mate’s prevarications are real, but addressing them would be wrong.”

    Come on. This is the party that perfected cognitive dissonance. They can do this all day.

  12. You say space race, I say Manhattan Project, but yes: dumping a hill of money, experts and resource into epic future tech until the job is done should be a human priority.  The Dash for Fusion! And for the “because China” folks, licence the damn things: save the world AND make a hill of money. 

  13. Um, this may be a stupid question, but where are the questions and answers?  I went to the link in the article (the link ending in debate12) and got a page with “recent news” up the top and a declaration that they’re a non-profit lower down.  There are no questions and answers on that page.

    The top news item looks relevant, but if you follow the trail it takes you back to the same place, strongly implying that I should see something there that I’m not.  I can’t find the questions and answers anywhere.  Has it been taken down because of traffic?  Is it on another page, and in that case is there a direct link?  Is it geo-blocked (I’m in Aus)?

    1. I’m getting the same endless loop back and forth, and still haven’t found the answers on their site. And I’m in the US.

    2. Nope, I cant find them either, Google searches are just leading to a bunch of 404 errors and so are some of the links on the site. 

  14. Good to see that the standard procedure is still in place-

    From Yes, Prime Minister (1986)

    Bernard: What if the Prime Minister insists we help them?
    Sir Humphrey: Then we follow the four-stage strategy.
    Bernard: What’s that?
    Sir Richard: Standard Foreign Office response in a time of crisis.
    Sir Richar: In stage one we say nothing is going to happen.
    Sir Humphrey: Stage two, we say something may be about to happen, but we should do nothing about it.
    Sir Richard: In stage three, we say that maybe we should do something about it, but there’s nothing we *can* do.
    Sir Humphrey: Stage four, we say maybe there was something we could have done, but it’s too late now.

    1. Interestingly, when one argues with climate change deniers one can go through all four stages in about 20 minutes.  They go from “It’s all a scam!” to “It’s not our fault!” to “Fuel prices!” without a pause as if they were mutually consistent arguments.

    1. Actually, no, his middle name is “Mitt”.   His first name is Willard, but he doesn’t use it.

  15. According to Romney, Obama did the wrong thing by “trying to pick winners and losers.”  His response?

    “As president, I will focus government resources on research programs that advance the development of knowledge, and on technologies with widespread application and potential to serve as the foundation for private sector innovation and commercialization.”

    Shorter version:  “I’ll only pick winners.”  What a dumbass.

  16. 1) Deny climate change is happening.
    2) Okay, climate change is happening, but humans aren’t causing it.
    3) Alright, humans are causing climate change but it’s too expensive to do anything about it.
    4) Okay, the effects of climate change are more expensive to deal with than just addressing it, but we can’t raise taxes.
    5) Why didn’t the Democrats do something about this sooner?

  17. … the primary effect of unilateral action by the U.S. … will be to shift industrial activity overseas to nations … less environmentally friendly. That result may make environmentalists feel better

    Good grief. Underneath all the reasoning, he seems to believe that what drives environmentalists is some kind of anti-Americanism. Why the hell would environmentalists feel better that it was those durn furreners messin’ up the world? He still doesn’t get it, and is just saying what he thinks people want to hear.

    1.  He’s telling conservatives what they do want to hear.  He doesn’t care what environmentalists think because they weren’t voting for him anyway.  Conservative rhetoric has been insinuating for decades that environmentalism is a socialist plot to bring down the USA, so this is part of a long-standing propaganda tradition.

      Incidentally, I think they call it “environmentalism” instead of “conservationism” because the latter sounds like something conservatives could actually get behind.

  18. I’d just like to say Maggie that Romney didn’t actually say that he believed in climate change. Not while he can conceivably back peddle out of every statement depending on who calls him on it.

    Human activity “Contributes”
    “Policymakers should consider the risk of negative consequences”

    I sounds like he is trying to fool people into thinking he does believe in global warming.

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