New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's last-minute endorsement of President Obama last week—released in an editorial titled "A Vote for a President to Lead on Climate Change"—wasn't simply a big political event. It also raised the issue of climate change to a level that hadn't been seen in the long presidential campaign.
Groups that have been monitoring the candidates' positions on climate change say it's unclear what impact Bloomberg's statement—which said the devastation from superstorm Sandy "should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action"—will have on today's election.
But it has drawn new attention to the differences between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
"The president would continue to work on investing in clean energy, continue initiatives to reduce carbon pollution and pushing to end tax breaks of big oil," said Jeff Gohringer, national press secretary for the League of Conservation Voters, a political advocacy organization dedicated to supporting pro-environment candidates. "If Mitt Romney becomes president he will be the first president ever to reject the scientific consensus surrounding climate change.
"So you can see the clear contrasts and what those respective politics hold for the country."
"I think we've seen that President Obama is much more inclined to impose regulations that restrict carbon emissions than President Romney would," said David Kreutzer of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that questions climate change. "Some of those things are already set in and will require quite a bit of effort to undo, but things going forward could be considerably different."
Romney and Obama made only passing references to climate change during their convention speeches (Romney's in the form of a joke) and the subject didn't come up at all in their three debates for the first time in decades. But environmentalists and other election watchers say its emergence during the final two weeks of the campaign could force the winner of the presidential race to address climate change sooner rather than later.
"It seems that there's a new awareness of this problem and the risks of climate change after Sandy," said Kurt Davies, research director for Greenpeace. "We can only hope that it creates more attention in the policy arena and I think it will. ... It's given us a chance to actually talk to the candidates about this issue."
Davies and other observers agree that no matter who wins, there's likely to be little in the way of comprehensive legislation or policy. With Congress deadlocked on most issues and environmental legislation a no-go for years, they say most climate and energy policy will probably come from the White House.
If Obama Wins
If Obama wins a second term, environmentalists expect him to continue using his regulatory authority to make strides on addressing carbon and other emissions without Congressional approval. In Obama's first term, the Environmental Protection Agency set the first greenhouse gas limits on new power plants, proposed the first national standard for mercury from coal facilities and bolstered fuel economy rules for passenger vehicles.
Under the stimulus package, he also steered billions of dollars into clean energy loans, grants and tax credits—which financed the construction of wind and solar farms, jump-started an electric vehicle battery industry and launched the smart grid.
"I would expect the administration to move forward largely in the same way, in making environmental protection one of its hallmarks," said David Goldston, senior adviser to the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund.
"Should Obama win, it gives him a little more ability to move forward on his proposals on efficiency and clean energy that are not only good for the economy, but the environment," said Cathy DuVall, national political director for the Sierra Club.
After Hurricane Sandy, she added, "the climate reasoning for it won't be treated as a joke."
The fact that the Obama administration has already started working on these issues sets the stage for swifter action, said Rob Sisson, president of the Republican group ConservAmerica.
"It will be a lot quicker for them to tee it up and move ahead," said Sisson, whose group focuses on natural resource conservation. "This is an administration that has already laid the groundwork.
"With the national environmental and conservation movement in place, and with a growing appreciation for these issues by those in the center, a second administration will have the momentum to move forward."
That's not good news for groups on the right, who say EPA regulations have been hurting businesses and would like to see them scaled back. Kreutzer of the Heritage Foundation thinks Obama's work on climate change has been "held in check" by Congress and Obama's reelection bid.
"With no additional elections for him to face, I think we'll see more aggressive work. And I don't think we'll see the Keystone XL pipeline," Kreutzer said, referring to the pending decision on whether the controversial Canada-to-U.S. oil sands pipeline should be approved.
If Romney Wins