Imagine this: Climate change might actually become an election year issue to reckon with.

It’s pretty well understood that environmental issues aren’t a major factor in U.S. national elections. Global warming, endangered species, and pollution aren’t kitchen table concerns like the economy, health care, and war.

Which is not to say green issues play no role in electoral politics. In close elections, a candidate’s stance on a particular local or state issue can help determine the outcome. For example, in the perfect storm that hit Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential campaign, Ralph Nader relentlessly attacked the former Vice President on an Everglades-related issue that is believed to have cost Gore at least 10,000 votes in Florida, which, in addition to hanging chads, contributed to his losing the state and, ultimately, the election.


As President Obama gears up for his re-election campaign, some parallels to 2000 loom. For starters, political analysts believe the 2012 race will be a close one, with the laggard economy dragging down Obama’s approval ratings. Secondly, there are the insurgent movements on the Right (Tea Party) and Left (Occupy Wall Street), which have introduced an unpredictable volatility into the race. There is even the usual specter of Nader, who is making spoiler noises again.

On top of all this, some cracks in Obama’s liberal flank are opening up over his handling of climate change and energy-related concerns. For greens, in particular, the battle over the proposed Keystone pipeline is shaping up as a defining issue.

As Jordan Weissmann writes in The Atlantic:

Environmentalists have characterized their battle against Keystone XL as both a critical stand in the battle against carbon emissions and as a final test of the administration’s green bona fides. The pipeline would transport crude oil mined from Alberta, Canada’s massive tar sand deposits directly to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast. Because they require so much energy to process, tar sands are considered a particularly noxious source of greenhouse gases. So, frustrated by Obama’s inability to pass climate change legislation, the green movement has turned the pipeline into a 1,600-mile-long proxy battle.

However, Weissmann, like other observers, believes that the pipeline protesters are misguided if their aim is to stop global warming, since global demand for fossil fuels will result in the rerouting of the oil sands crude to somewhere else — like China — if the U.S/Canada pipeline gets nixed. (Then again, maybe not says one commentator.) But at this stage, with the political landscape so gloomy for climate action, climate activists have drawn a line in the sand over the Keystone pipeline. Their aim, plain and simple, is to galvanize a popular movement that makes climate change a political issue to reckon with.

Can they do it? Other forces are also at play, such as the rejection of climate science by GOP leaders and leading Republican Presidential candidates (see related features here and here with this posting), that has Juliet Eilperin, a Washington Post reporter, thinking that global warming may yet be a big issue in the 2012 election. Just yesterday, in a talk at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, Eilperin said:

“I actually think this is a really interesting moment. It is a moment that is challenging a position I’ve held for a long time, which is that the environment doesn’t play a role in elections.”

She added that climate change “has the potential to become a wedge issue. What is so interesting is whether it will be a wedge issue for the left or a wedge issue for the right.”

Maybe we’ll know the answer to that one a year from now.

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.