When the 1980s called on Monday to ask Mitt Romney for their foreign policy back, they might have also asked for a word about climate change. The subject did not come up in any of 2012’s presidential or vice presidential debates for the first time since 1988, when, months after climate scientist James Hansen first testified before Congress about the dangers of greenhouse gases, the vice-presidential debate moderator noted that the country had just lived through “one of the hottest summers it can remember.” Damage from that summer’s drought would make it the costliest in American history, and 1988 was on track to be one of the hottest years on record.
It felt, in other words, a lot like 2012, a year in which crops have fallen to the worst drought since 1956 and rising temperatures have all but guaranteed that these 12 months will go down as the hottest calendar year on record. (1988 barely rates anymore: of the ten hottest years on record, only one, 1998, was in the 20th century.) Any one of the four debate moderators this year could have lifted verbatim the question moderator Jon Margolis asked in 1988, opening with the summer’s heat, explaining that climate change “could, in a couple of generations, threaten our descendants’ comfort and health and perhaps even their existence” and asking the candidates, “What would you urge our governments to do to deal with this problem?”
Neither the moderators nor the candidates felt the need to throw a bone to, in Candy Crowley’s words, “you climate change people.” While it’s disappointing enough that, despite an untoward amount of begging and groveling from environmental groups, climate change wasn’t mentioned, it might have been more unnerving to hear how little progress politicians have made in figuring out what to do about it.
In 1988, in response to Margolis’ question, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic nominee for vice president, listed three strategies: use “a lot more natural gas,” look for alternative energy sources, and turn corn into ethanol. That is, more or less, what President Obama has been touting as an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy (although if pressed, he would probably allow that instead of turning corn into ethanol, it might be preferable to try algae or switchgrass).
Still, neither Obama nor Romney should have needed a moderator’s prompting to raise the issue. They spent more than enough time talking about clean energy: it came up in the first debate as part of the rambling discussion on deficit and tax breaks, and in the town hall debate, Obama made a graceful pivot from the inevitable question about gas prices to his work to update fuel efficiency standards, a strong policy that has the potential to decrease carbon emissions, while keeping consumer spending on gas from rising ever upwards. Neither candidate, though, bothered to mention that energy extraction is also an environmental issue.
But why would they? For both candidates, work on climate policy has led only to political dead ends. As governor, Romney did get excited, at one point, about the Northeast’s regional cap-and-trade initiative, only to step back in anticipation of his move to presidential politics. President Obama was supposed to help make 2009’s Copenhagen climate talks worthwhile; he managed only to salvage them from complete disaster at the very last minute. Cap-and-trade—a policy idea lifted from the Republican Party, meant to be something resembling a bipartisan initiative—fell apart. The Obama administration has been reduced to sneaking policies directly targeting climate change through the Environmental Protection Agency, and Obama would rather talk about wind energy than capping emissions at coal-fired power plants. Clean energy sounds exciting and win votes. Environmental regulation does not.
Politically problematic policies like cap-and-trade, though, are still some of the stronger strategies out there for dealing with climate change. America can burn all the natural gas it wants; if surplus coal goes straight into European power plants, global greenhouse gas emissions will still rise. International negotiations might just be necessary to bringing them down. American businesses still need to find some way to dump less carbon pollution into the atmosphere, and although the regulations the Obama administration is putting in place will help, regional cap-and-trade initiatives like the one in the Northeast are also making a difference. By leaving climate change out of the debates, both candidates are conceding that they don’t have any better ideas.
Boosting clean energy will help some on the climate front, but not enough to keep droughts like the one this summer from becoming more common and sea levels from rising. These impacts are economic, as well as environmental: this summer’s terrible crop yields, for instance, mean that food prices could go up, pulling at household budgets. Soon enough, presidential candidates will have to field questions about the newest ideas for combating climate change—geoengineering, for instance. These are strategies that would have governments fix the climate by pumping chemicals into the sky, turning it white to reflect the sun’s energy back into space, or pouring iron into the ocean in order to stimulate the growth of carbon-dioxide trapping plant life. These aren’t better ideas than the ones languishing in policy purgatory now, but without action now, they’ll start looking more and more appealing. Even advocates of these ideas think they’re risky enough to be a little bit nutty, but if politicians avoid dealing with climate change, there might not be any better choices left.