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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Issue that Dare Not Speak Its Name

No mention of climate change: people gathered at the Ehsan Center in Los Angeles to watch the final presidential campaign debate.Agence France-Presse - Getty ImagesNo mention of climate change: people gathered at the Ehsan Center in Los Angeles to watch the final presidential campaign debate.
Green: Politics

A mountain of scientific evidence points to climate change as a serious risk for the human future. The Pentagon sees it as a threat to national security. Arctic sea ice hit a record low this summer. In some low-lying countries threatened by sea level rise, evacuation planning has already begun.

Yet the presidential debates are now o ver, and not once did climate change surface explicitly as an issue. This campaign is the first time that has happened since 1988, and environmental groups â€" and environmentally minded voters â€" are aghast.

“By ignoring climate change, both President Obama and Governor Romney are telling that rest of the world that they do not take it seriously, and that America cannot be expected to act with the intensity and urgency needed to avert catastrophe,” Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth Action, said in a statement. “Their silence prepares a future for our children and grandchildren in which we will face deeper droughts, fiercer forest fires and killer storms, messier spills and dirtier air. America deserves better.”

Well before Monday's final campaign debate, environmental groups dubbed the situation “climate silence” and even set up a Web site in an effort to force the issue into the campaign. It was all for naught, however. To my knowledge , Jim Lehrer and Bob Schieffer, the moderators of the first and third debates, have not explained their thinking in declining to bring up the issue, except to say that time pressure prevented them from asking about many important subjects.

In the second debate, the candidates spent more than 10 minutes talking about energy policy, yet the “c” word never came up. Candy Crowley of CNN, who moderated that debate, explained on the air afterward that while she knew that “you climate change people” wanted the subject raised, she felt that most voters preferred that the debate stay focused on the economy.

Throughout the campaign, the candidates have talked a great deal about energy, but it has essentially been a competition in who could heap the most praise on fossil fuels. They tended to avoid any explicit linkage between their energy proposals and climate risk.

Frustration on that front is palpable in many places, espe cially on college campuses.

“Young voters want an economic recovery, but we don't see the economy and the climate as separate issues,” David Snydacker, a Northwestern University graduate student working on clean-energy technologies, said in an e-mail. “Today's young scientists and engineers are preparing to build modern energy systems to sustain ten billion people. We see enormous potential in solar and wind energy, and we accept that fossil fuels will become increasingly expensive. Watching the candidates clamor to claim the title of ‘Mr. Coal Guy' is disappointing, to say the least.”

Mitt Romney has focused a great deal on coal, oil and natural gas production and criticized President Obama's push on green energy. He called for ending a tax credit that supports wind energy, angering even some Republican lawmakers from states like Iowa where wind production has become an important source of rural income.

Perhaps the closest Mr. Romney came to try ing to win over environmental voters was his campaign promise to “eliminate any barriers that might prevent new energy technologies from succeeding on their own merits.”

Since many environmental voters are in the Obama camp, the president's failure to bring up climate change in the debates may well have been a bigger disappointment to them than Mr. Romney's stance.

Mr. Obama used phrases like “the energy of the future” several times in the debates, and he explicitly mentioned climate change as a threat in his speech to the Democratic National Convention in September, later reprising that line in some of his stump speeches. Perhaps sensitive to the perception that Mr. Obama has ignored the issue, his campaign has been e-mailing environmental groups to call attention to these statements.

But Mr. Obama has mainly seemed concerned about protecting his right flank from Mr. Romney's criticisms. The president, of course, has faced a political backlash over his environmental agenda the last two years amid the rise of the Tea Party and the Republican takeover of the House. Even so, he has continued to pursue policies designed to lower carbon dioxide emissions, including tougher mileage standards for cars and regulation of emissions from power plants.

Some environmental groups, recognizing that a second Obama term would probably be better for their issues than a Romney presidency, have declined to publicly attack the president.

Many political observers are not especially surprised that climate change has gotten short shrift in this campaign. In general, environmental concerns tend to rise in the public mind in times of prosperity and sink in hard times. And polling suggests that, while most voters believe climate change is real, they see it as a long-term threat and therefore put it far down their list of priorities for action.

“No candidate has been able to portray climate change policy as a win-win,” Euge ne M. Trisko, a lawyer and consultant for the United Mine Workers of America, said on Tuesday. “That's because they understand that the root of climate change mitigation strategy is higher energy costs. It's an energy tax, and that's something you don't want to talk about in a debate.”