Why climate change was not ignored in the US Presidential debate

By Tierney Smith 

Climate change wasn’t mentioned in the third and final Presidential debate, making it the first time in nearly 25 years it was missed off the agenda.

In a year where the US saw a once-in-a-generation drought and the world watched Arctic summer sea ice reach its lowest extent since records began, it seems strange that the issue has not come up at all in the debates and very little in the whole election.

In the US environmental campaigners have been calling for the candidates to end the ‘climate silence’ and make their stance of the issue known to voters. The League of Conservation Voters launched a petition to put pressure on the moderators of the debates to ask a climate question.

But while the words climate change may have been missing from the debate, related topics have been dealt with in depth. We’ve selected five topics where climate change was mentioned – indirectly or otherwise.

The two candidates head to the poll on November 6 (Pic: WACP/Flickr & White House)

1) The Arab Spring

What was said: Romney – “With the Arab Spring, came a great deal of hope that there would be a change towards more moderation, and opportunity for greater participation on the part of women in public life, and in economic life in the Middle East. But instead, we’ve seen in nation after nation, a number of disturbing events.”

Link to climate: Researchers are become ever more aware of the role of climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ and while climate change itself was not responsible for the Arab Spring, the consequences of climate change. These include rising food and fuel prices and are expected to have had some impact on the uprisings, and are expected to continue to exacerbate political conflicts in the future.

2) Overseas Aid

What was said: Romney – “One, more economic development. We should key our foreign aid, our direct foreign investment, and that of our friends, we should coordinate it to make sure that we – we push back and give them more economic development. Number two, better education. Number three, gender equality. Number four, the rule of law. We have to help these nations create civil societies.”

Link to climate: Experts predict that, globally, climate change financial aid for developing countries will need between $37 and 50 billion per year to 2030 and could reach $75 to 100 per year by 2050. In President Obama’s 2013 fiscal year budget, $469.5 million of foreign aid was pledged directly for climate change projects. It has also been a controversial topic in the US, with the US Senate calling for all funding to climate change and food security programmes to be cut in 2012.

3) Energy independence

What was said: Obama – “Doing everything we can to control our own energy. We’ve cut our oil imports to the lowest level in two decades because we’ve developed oil and natural gas. But we also have to develop clean energy technologies that will allow us to cut our exports in half by 2020. That’s the kind of leadership that we need to show.”

Link to climate: Choices of energy will be crucial for countries meeting their carbon reduction targets worldwide and energy has been a huge issue this election. Each candidate promised an ‘all of the above’ strategy. They both say that the US must continue to invest in oil and gas exploration, as well as modern renewables. Obama has also made several mentions in the three presidential debates calling for better energy efficiency, while Romney has attacked what he has referred to as ‘Obama’s war on coal’. He claims EPA efficiency measures are leaving new coal powers stations impossible to operate.

4) The rise of China

What was said: Romney – “I look around the world; I don’t see our influence growing around the world. I see our influence receding, in part because of the failure of the president to deal with our economic challenges at home; in part because of our withdrawal from our commitment to our military in the way I think it ought to be; in part because of the turmoil with Israel.”

Obama – “Well, I think it will continue to be terrorist networks. We have to remain vigilant as I just said. But with respect to China, China is both an adversary, but also a potential partner in the international community if it’s following the rules. So my attitude coming into office was that we are going to insist that China plays by the same rules as everybody else.”

Link to climate: Over the last few years the US and China have emerged as the main protagonists of the international climate debate, involved in a stand off where each country has waited for the other to make the first move. Last year in Durban, China made that move as they showed willingness to be included in a new global climate agreement. Head of the UNFCCC Christiana Figueres has warned the US that they risk being left behind on the global stage.

On the other side of this issue is trade. The two countries are involved in a heated battle over solar technologies. Last year US solar-panel manufacturers filed a petition against the Chinese solar industry for providing billions of dollars in subsidies as well as cash grants and tax breaks to the industry. These subsidies have meant Chinese manufacturers have been able to export their products into the US and the EU at competitive prices, squeezing the domestic markets.

This is all part of a wider trade dispute between the two countries.

5) Support for cleantech

What was said: Romney – “I have the kind of commitment to ensure that our industries in this country can compete and be successful. We in this country can compete successfully with anyone in the world, and we’re going on. We’re going to have to have a president, however, that doesn’t think that somehow the government investing in car companies like Tesla and Fisker, making electric battery cars. This is not research, Mr President; these are the government investing in companies. Investing in Solyndra. This is a company, this isn’t basic research. I want to invest in research. Research is great. Providing funding to universities and think tanks is great. But investing in companies? Absolutely not.”

Link to climate: Investing in clean-tech will be vital if the world is to wean itself off fossil fuels. Over the period of the three debates, this issue has come up in many different forms. Obama called for an end to the $4 billion per year given to oil companies in the form of subsidies, while Romney accused the President of ‘picking the losers’ with the government’s investment in renewable companies – particularly Solyndra.

The Obama Campaign has defended his stance on climate change telling The Hill website “Whether it’s on the stump or at the White House, President Obama has long focused on ways to develop clean energy as a core economic pillar. By advocating for the growth of renewable energy, as he did in Tuesday’s debate, President Obama has continually called for action that will address the sources of climate change.”

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