Climate Change? What Climate Change?

by: Blaine Skrainka

October 22, 2012

After four debates, three presidential and one veep; 360 minutes of banter: not a single mention of global climate change. This marks the first time since 1984 that climate change and global warming have been left out of the presidential debates. The issue has been addressed in every debate cycle since 1988, until now.

Presidential Debate WILD mag world

The third and final meeting between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney was a 90-minute discussion that was advertised as a head-to-head on foreign policy, but at times veered off into domestic agendas and tired political rhetoric. This blended spectrum of issues could have surely accommodated a consideration of climate change as it affects not only the environment, but energy and trade policy, and yes, national security.

After years upon years of record-breaking temperatures and supercharged weather events, and summer after summer of global droughts  leading to food shortages and price spikes — after decades of importing carbon-intesive fossil fuels from the highly unstable Middle East — how can climate change be ignored on this stage?

Before we get to the candidates themselves, it is worth holding the moderators to account. Jim Lehrer, Martha Raddatz, Candy Crowley, and Bob Schieffer wholly failed to challenge the candidates as to whether they recognize the threat of global warming and how they intend to reduce our carbon emissions. An interview with Candy Crowley after the third debate gives insight into the supposed challenge of fitting in the topic: “I had that question for all of you climate change people. We just, you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing so you knew you kind of wanted to go with the economy,” she said.

The quote serves as a microcosm of the conversation today surrounding climate change in U.S. politics and media. That Crowley addresses those concerned with global warming as “you climate change people” shows that she considers them at best a constituency, and at worst a special interest group. From a purely political standpoint, perhaps she has some ground to stand on (only 42 percent of Americans believe that global warming is mostly caused by human activity according to a Pew poll). But what does that say about the state of journalism if we cannot challenge our leaders to address a crisis that has been affirmed by the scientific community (98 percent of climatologists agree that we are responsible for climate change). And yes, Ms. Crowley, with all due respect, climate change is an economic issue.

Despite not being asked directly, either candidate could have easily broached the subject, especially during the third debate’s frustrating back-and-forth on energy policy that descended into chest-thumping match over who could expedite the extraction of fossil fuels in North America via hydraulic fracturing, deep water drilling off of the Alaskan and Gulf coasts, and tapping into the tar sands of Alberta (the second largest pool of carbon on Earth).

For President Obama’s part, the series of debates was not unlike his first term in office — he again and again declines to take to the bully pulpit. Perhaps the campaign team in Chicago is confident that the President already has the environmental vote, and likely he does not want to risk losing voters in swing states like Ohio that are home to large coal industries.

It is not that President Obama doesn’t understand the geopolitical stakes (remember that tonight was supposed to be a debate on foreign policy). Just last week his cabinet member, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said in a speech: “We…have an interest in promoting new technologies and sources of energy – especially including renewables – to reduce pollution; to diversify the global energy supply; to create jobs; and to address the very real threat of climate change.”

The New Yorker editorial board also points out:

“[President Obama’s] environmental record is not as barren as it may seem. The stimulus bill provided for extensive investment in green energy, biofuels, and electric cars. In August, the Administration instituted new fuel-efficiency standards that should nearly double gas mileage; by 2025, new cars will need to average 54.5 miles per gallon.”

Mitt Romney on the other hand has said that he would not make climate change a priority in his administration, and went as far as to mock the issue during his RNC acceptance speech. As we have highlighted before, Mr. Romney has a inconsistent and confusing record on addressing global warming. What we know for sure is that he opposes a system of pricing carbon to be traded on global markets (originally a Republican idea).

When the science is so overwhelming in making the case that climate change is well underway, having devastating consequences around the world, and caused by human emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases, how can the public dialogue have become some muddied? Take into consideration the most recent FEC filings of political action committees as reported by Politico:

“ExxonMobil’s PAC spent a lot last month — $200,000 — and $180,000 of that was made up of $5,000 contributions to candidates. Koch Industries PAC blew Exxon’s spending out of the water, however. Koch PAC shipped off $354,500 to federal candidates and another $126,500 to state candidates last month. $210,000 of the federal amount was $5,000 contributions to candidates.”

Ultimately, as an active and informed electorate, we have to recognize our own failures in pushing back against the profit-driven propaganda on the part of multinational corporations in the business of fossil fuels. The debate moderators didn’t ask the questions because apparently they didn’t think that the public at large cares anymore. We share the blame. Most importantly, our political leaders are more accountable to monied interests than the citizenry. During this election season and beyond, we must speak up.

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