What’s the Best Climate Question to Debate?

Oct 5, 2012 by

Climate Change October 5, 2012, 1:01 pm


A lot of the post-debate buzz about President Obama’s soporific performance (as Jon Stewart made clear, it was not the Denver altitude!) may have been rendered moot by today’s jobs data. But there’s still plenty to discuss.

As you undoubtedly know, despite a blitz of signature drives and online chatter (centered on the Twittter hashtag #climatesilence), there was no mention of global warming in the presidential debate on domestic issues. (Bill Becker, the executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, offers some reasoned thoughts on that gap here.)

On Twitter, I argued that this would have been the wrong venue for such a debate question because the most consequential impacts from climate extremes (whatever mix of forces triggered them) and the vast majority of growth in greenhouse-gas emissions are outside United States borders. Global warming, both in its most significant drivers and consequences, remains a global issue.

Of course that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to focus on domestically; there are huge opportunities to spur advances in low-carbon energy technologies and energy conservation that could pass muster with a broad range of Americans. And building resilience to climate extremes — from drought to flooding to destructive storms — is a nonpartisan no brainer.

But in the context of greenhouse-driven climate change, too much of a focus on domestic policies or legislation can obscure bigger realities:

In Australia, for example, a domestic carbon price has been set but carbon exports (Australian coal flowing to Asia) aren’t counted.

Consider this Financial Times headline: “U.S. coal exports to Europe soar.” While campaigners have focused on stopping coal export projects in the Pacific Northwest targeting Chinese demand, there’s a boom in American coal exports to Europe (hey, wasn’t Europe a leading supporter of the Kyoto Protocol?).

A driving force for coal in Europe is the combination of low prices for carbon permits and resistance to expanded natural gas drilling. The result? While the United States is shutting down old coal-fired power plants and not building new ones, Europe — also because of the commitment in Germany to get out of nuclear power — is moving back to coal.

There are two more presidential debates addressing both foreign and domestic issues. What would you ask, if there’s a chance for a question related to climate and energy?

One question from me would be:

While persistent and deep uncertainty surrounds the most important potential impacts from and responses to greenhouse-driven global warming (see David Roberts, Michael Levi and this list of reviewed research for more), the long-term picture of a profoundly changed Earth is clear. What do you see as the best mix of achievable policies to limit environmental and economic regrets?

We welcome your comments!