bees saying buzzwordsDon’t expect the environment to be in the spotlight in political campaigns this year. The economy will be the star in 2012, with the culture wars singing backup.

Still, environmental issues are getting talked about, often obliquely as part of larger discussions about energy — though the words don’t always mean what you might think they mean. And the words politicians don’t say can tell you as much as the words they do.

Here’s a guide to energy and environmental buzzwords you’ll be hearing, or not, this election year:

Gas prices
Republicans thought they’d get a lot of mileage out of this phrase, but now it looks like it might not get them too far. When gas prices were trending upward earlier this year, Republicans went all out blaming Obama and the Democrats. Now that gas prices have come back down, the Republican messaging has gotten muddled.  Still, the GOP is not quite ready to drop the issue.

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Never mind that the president and Congress can’t do a damn thing to control prices at the pump.

Energy subsidies
“Subsidy” is a bad word in Washington these days, synonymous with “taxpayer giveaway” and “crony capitalism.”

If a politician wants to steer money to an industry, s/he’ll instead use words like “investment,” “support,” and “job creation.” See: Republicans defending oil and gas subsidies (an increasingly awkward endeavor), and Democrats defending clean energy subsidies.

If a politician wants to cut off money to an industry, that’s when the word “subsidy” comes out. See: Obama railing against oil and gas subsidies and other Democrats pushing the new End Polluter Welfare Act, and Republicans railing against subsidies for renewables and fulminating about Solyndra (more on that below).

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Democrats would seem to have the upper hand with the subsidy buzzword this year, as most Americans are sick of supporting Big Oil and eager to support renewables.

Big Oil
Speaking of, “Big Oil” is a phrase you’ll only hear from Democrats this year. Obama’s particularly fond of it. Republicans don’t have a great rejoinder, as Big Solar and Big Wind don’t yet exist.

If you hear a politician say the word “Keystone” this year, you can bet s/he’s a Republican.

Obama has been trying to please everyone on the issue of the Keystone XL pipelinedenying it a permit in January, then praising its southern leg in March. Predictably, he’s just managed to piss everyone off, so expect him to avoid the topic from here on out.

Republicans, on the other hand, are doing everything in their power to keep the issue in the news — and they’re getting help from pipeline builder TransCanada, which recently reapplied for a permit. The GOP argues that Obama’s unwillingness to rubber-stamp the pipeline is hampering the economy and making America less energy secure — even though those arguments are false. Currently the GOP is trying to force Keystone approval into a big transportation bill.

Many Democrats, meanwhile, are walking on eggshells around this one. They don’t want to anger the green wing of the base, which showed its might by elevating Keystone into a national issue last year. But they also don’t want to be painted as anti-job or tick off any of the unions that want to help build the pipeline (the labor community is split on the issue). A poll released by Hart Research in February suggested that the Keystone fight is winnable for Dems if they articulate a clear message — say, that the pipeline would create as few as 50 permanent jobs, according [PDF] to researchers at Cornell University, and that much of the oil it transports would be shipped overseas. But savvy, strategic messaging is not a Democratic strong suit of late.

If you hear a politician say the word “Solyndra” this year, you can know s/he’s a Republican.

Republicans will keep harping on the bankruptcy of solar company Solyndra, which got a federal loan guarantee of more than half a billion dollars. They say it shows the folly of the federal government trying to pick winners in the energy sector and boost the economy through stimulus spending, and recent ads from GOP groups go further with salacious (and bogus) Solyndra-related charges. Romney slipped up earlier this year and said “Solyndra” when he meant “Keystone,” betraying the fact that Republicans see both issues primarily as cudgels with which to bash Obama.

Obama has been defending his administration’s Solyndra investment, albeit without mentioning the company’s name. His first TV ad of the campaign season went after his Solyndra critics. In March, he said, “Each successive generation recognizes that some technologies are going to work; some won’t. Some companies will fail; some companies will succeed,” echoing language from his State of the Union address in January. Other Dems have been less sure-footed in their responses to the Solyndra mess. Expect them to avoid the topic like the plague.

Clean energy
“Green jobs” is soooo 2008. “Clean energy” is now the phrase du jour if you want to talk about shifting to an economy based on renewables and efficiency — and so far, only Democrats do.

Obama is running hard on this theme: “I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy,” he’s said more than once. The president regularly visits cleantech companies and highlights the economic promise of cleantech jobs.

Republicans counter by talking about “energy jobs” — the kind that come from building pipelines and mining coal and fracking. “Drill baby drill” talk continues to resonate with the GOP base, while right-wing groups are trying to spark an anti-wind movement. Still, a handful of Republicans from states with big wind potential are calling for extension of a wind-energy tax credit that’s set to expire at the end of the year, recognizing that clean energy can be a job creator.

Poll after poll finds widespread support from voters across the spectrum for renewable power, so you’d think smart politicians would try to tap that vein.

In 2008, from the presidential candidates on down the ticket, Democrats and Republicans alike offered up plans for combating climate change. But you won’t be hearing “climate change” or “global warming” in many of this year’s stump speeches — and that absence speaks volumes.

President Obama recently told Rolling Stone that he thinks climate will become a campaign issue, but even he doesn’t seem to believe it. He didn’t even bother to mention climate change in his most recent Earth Day address. The president thinks he’ll reach more independents by talking about clean energy, energy innovation, and an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy (snatched right from the Republican playbook). Many of his fellow Democrats are following his lead and shunting climate into the shadows, still smarting from the ignominious death of climate legislation in 2010.

Mitt Romney doesn’t like to talk about climate change either because he’s flip-flopped on the issue. Most other Republican politicians bring up climate change only if they want to voice their skepticism. Former GOP Rep. Bob Inglis (S.C.) is launching a new group to promote conservative solutions to climate change, but don’t expect that effort to gain much traction this year.

Yes, that’s right, the most critical issue ever to face humanity is getting less attention this election season than dogs.

A version of this post was originally published in SEJournal.

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