Presidential debates: Is climate change on the agenda?

In advance of Wednesday’s first presidential debate, environmental groups across the country have been pushing hard to get questions about climate change asked and answered by Democratic incumbent President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Gov. Mitt Romney.

Exhibit 1: ClimateSilence.org, a website launched last week by Friends of the Earth Action and Forecast the Facts, which charges that, even in the midst of this summer’s crippling storms and droughts, both candidates have remained silent on climate change. The site includes a timeline, mapping out both candidates statements and actions from 2007 to present day, rating them from affirmation to denial, along with the following summary.

In 2008, both political parties nominated presidential candidates — Barack Obama and John McCain — who promised to address the climate crisis with mandatory caps on carbon pollution. Four years later, the arithmetic of climate change has become even more dire. Yet the rhetoric of the 2012 candidates has moved in the opposite direction. For President Obama, climate change has gone from an “urgent” challenge worthy of major speeches and comprehensive legislation, to an afterthought, fleetingly mentioned at occasional campaign events. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, has backpedaled from weak acknowledgement of the basic science to outright mockery of the carbon crisis. While there is clearly a difference between these two positions, neither come anywhere near the honesty and leadership that the problem demands.

At the same time, nine nonprofit groups — the League of Conservation Voters, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, The Climate Reality Project, MomsRising.org, GlobalSolutions.org, iMatter Campaign and Moms Clean Air Force — dropped off 160,000 petitions for PBS newsman Jim Lehrer, who will moderate the first debate in Denver, urging him to ask the candidates about climate change.

“Millions of voters will be watching this first presidential debate to hear how the candidates plan to address the nation’s most urgent challenges – and the American people deserve to hear a substantive, meaningful conversation about confronting the climate crisis and building a clean energy economy,” Vanessa Kritzer, 0nline campaigns manager at the League of Conservation Voters, said in a press release announcing the petition drop.

On the Climate Progress website, Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow with the Center for American Progress Action Fund, has three questions on climate change and energy policy for the candidates.  Two challenge Romney on his past statements and actions, such as his opposition to the increasingly rigorous fuel economy standards enacted by Obama. Weiss’s question for the President urges him to be more specific about his plans for addressing climate change and energy issues if he is re-elected.

Recent polls indicate that voters are concerned about climate change, want the candidates to address the issue and are ready to support leaders who can offer a plan for the nation’s transition from fossil fuel dependence to clean energy.

Most enlightening is a report, “Climate Solutions for a Stronger America,” from Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions, a consulting firm focused on climate change and sustainable development.  The report puts together polling information showing voters’ rising concerns about climate change and support for clean energy, with a game plan for political messaging.

Key findings include:

– Three out of four Americans now acknowledge climate disruption is real, and more than two out of three believe we should be doing something about it.

– Oil industry propaganda and misinformation is being pushed back by the force of the wildfires, floods, droughts and violent weather than people see with their own eyes.

– Voters are strongly supportive of clean energy, and extremely distrustful of oil and coal companies who distort science and oppose responsible policy.

 – Voters are hungry for forward-thinking solutions and can-do leadership. Yet few leaders are talking about this issue. There’s a huge political opportunity here.

 Enough said.