The global warming question came about half way through the televised GOP debate in Des Moines, Iowa, in mid December, and several candidates didn’t like it.

“I would like to see a show of hands,” said debate moderator Carolyn Washburn, executive editor of the Des Moines Register. “How many of you believe global climate change is a serious threat and caused by human activity?”

Fred Thompson led the revolt. “Well, do you want to give me a minute to answer that?”

“No, I don’t,” Washburn said.

What followed was a jokey and mostly awkward exchange that was nearly saved by a thoughtful response by GOP candidate John McCain (R-AZ). Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to explain his view of “energy independence,” but his fellow candidates and Washburn cut him off.

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Duncan Hunter (R-CA) threw in a few words suggesting his support of the skeptical view that CO2 emissions caused by humans may not be driving global warming.

Then Mitt Romney echoed President Bush’s view that new energy technologies will save the day and that America shouldn’t be expected to clean up the atmosphere on its own.

It was well-trodden ground, leading mostly nowhere as far as indicating what the candidates really think about the globe’s warming climate and what they propose to do about it.

The stifling debate format certainly didn’t help. In an election season in which the climate issue is receiving more attention than ever, it was once again disappointing that so little was said.

Just two weeks earlier, on November 28, CNN had hosted a presidential debate for Republican candidates, with video questions submitted via YouTube. The climate issue in that debate didn’t get a single word.

Romney and Giuliani spent much of the opening round sparring over immigration and over the hiring of undocumented help. McCain drew analogies between pulling out of Iraq and appeasing Adolph Hitler. In one video question, a young man from Dallas held up a Bible and said: “How you answer this question will tell us everything we need to know about you. Do you believe every word of this book?” The debate ended with talk about the candidates’ favorite baseball teams.

It was “excruciating to watch,” long-time climate researcher Jerry Mahlman wrote in an e-mail a week later.

The Democratic candidate debates, while collectively offering somewhat more insight into how the next President might deal with the climate issue, have generally ignored it.

On December 4, National Public Radio hosted a Democratic debate and focused on what it saw as three leading issues in this election season: Iran and the lessons of Iraq, immigration, and America’s relationship with China.

The previous week’s Democratic candidate debate at Drexel University in Philadelphia sparked a discussion of climate issues only after the escalating price of oil came up first. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson was the most aggressive of the candidates, calling for “an energy revolution” and diving into a series of specific proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Issue on So Many Voters’ Minds? Not So

So far in the 2008 election season, the climate issue is failing to consistently get the attention that scientists, environmentalists, and many policy experts say it deserves.

“I think what you’re seeing in the debates is a direct reflection of what the public is thinking,” said D. James Baker, NOAA administrator under President Clinton and an advisor to the Presidential Climate Action Project at the University of Colorado. PCAP aims to help the next President forge an agenda to tackle the climate issue.

“We in the climate community like to think we’re on everybody’s minds, but frankly I don’t think it’s true,” Baker continued in a telephone interview. “Otherwise, I think you would see this in the debate.”

Some advocacy groups say it’s largely the media’s fault that the climate issue is not the campaign issue they think it deserves to be. The League of Conservation Voters, which says “the climate crisis will be the biggest challenge facing the next President,” recently launched a website called The site urges visitors to sign a petition to “tell the reporters to focus on the human race, not the horse race.”

Candidates from both parties have framed the issue in terms of “energy security” – a clear recognition that voters are most immediately concerned about the nation’s vulnerability to Middle Eastern oil. The Democratic candidates have then gone on to use the energy security issue to discuss the environmental risks of global warming.

The partisan distinction is important because Republican candidates have had almost nothing substantive to say about it, except for John McCain.

The YouTube debate in late November therefore may have been telling, particularly about the fight for the Republican Party nomination.

“The Republicans have been quiet, I think, because they’ll become very conservative as they try to appeal to their base before the primary elections,” William Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action project, said in a telephone interview in early December. “I don’t think they’re going to venture out in anything that might be risky for them with that base.”

GOP’s McCain, Democrat’s Richardson

Robert Corell, Global Change Director of The H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment and a long-time expert on climate and policy issues, said McCain has a clear understanding of the climate issue but he has held back on the campaign trail.

“John McCain really does understand this, and I’ve spoken with him personally, one-on-one,” Corell said in a telephone interview. “He has a problem because he’s part of a party that doesn’t want to deal with it, so you’re not going to hear much from him.”

On the Democratic side, the story has been different. All of the candidates say they back emissions cuts that scientists claim could help avoid the worst effects of unchecked warming during this century. All except for former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel have called for a cap and trade system to cut emissions. Gravel has instead proposed taxing energy uses that increase CO2 emissions.

Various media outlets, policy groups, and advocacy organizations have laid out comparisons of the candidates’ positions on the climate issue. Among them have been The New York Times and the environmental journal, Grist.

On December 18, the League of Conservation Voters released an online tool for people to use in reviewing and comparing candidates’ positions on the climate issue. A link to the guide can be found at the League’s website.

Terry Tamminen, an energy and environment adviser to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and a former California environmental official, has graded each of the candidates on their proposed plans for how they’d cut emissions. The only A grade went to Bill Richardson.

“Richardson has come out with the boldest (proposals) of the pack,” Becker said. “If any of them understands this issue from an energy standpoint … Bill Richardson does.”

While Republicans are hesitant to say much about the climate issue, at least in the primaries, Democrats run the risk of becoming vulnerable in the general election when the debate shifts toward costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent or more by 2050 – a goal that would require a complete transformation of the economy and American society.

“I’d be the first to tell you: This is not necessarily the greatest political calculation … (but) no matter what the politics are, there’s such a moral responsibility to address this issue. We’ve got to do it.” John Edwards said in a Washington Post story on November 6. That article explored risks Democrats face by pushing the aggressive emissions goals.

First 100 Days Policy Recommendations

On December 4, the presidential candidates received what undoubtedly was their most comprehensive advice to date on what to do about global warming.

It came from the Presidential Climate Action Project, which proposed an action plan (pdf) of about 300 steps the next president should take during the first 100 days in office.

Among them:

  • Put America on the path to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 90-percent below current levels by 2050.
  • Set aggressive goals to transition the nation to clean and sustainable energy resources – cutting petroleum consumption in half by 2020, achieving an average fuel efficiency of 50 miles per gallon for passenger vehicles, and obtaining at least 20-percent of our electricity from renewable resources.
  • Require that new electric power plants emit no greenhouse gases, or are able to capture and permanently store them.
  • End federal subsidies of oil, gas, coal, and nuclear industries.
  • Commit the federal government to being climate-neutral.

A popular electoral mandate would help the next President move aggressively, but he or she will have to show leadership immediately after taking office, said Baker, from the PCAP.

“The new President really has to step out in the first week,” he said. “If it’s not taken on like that, we’re going to see other countries moving and the U.S. will still be out in the cold. It’s a leadership issue. It’s a fundamental problem.”

Scientists and business people alike are calling for national leadership, both from the next President and from Congress.

On December 2, about three dozen climate scientists, economists, energy experts, and other academics sent a letter to the presidential candidates, President Bush, and all members of Congress. They proposed an Apollo or Manhattan Project-like effort to develop alternative energy sources. The letter called for an investment of at least $30 billion a year – less than half of what America already invests in military R&D.

On November 30, 150 international corporations signed “The Bali Communiqué” – an appeal to world political leaders to develop a “comprehensive, legally binding United Nations framework to tackle climate change.” Du Pont, General Electric, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, The Coca-Cola Company, British Airways, Shell, and Volkswagen were among the signatories.

American businesses are calling for national leadership on the climate issue because they fear states will continue filling the vacuum with their own sets of initiatives and regulations, Corell said.

“The current evolution of climate action at state levels is creating a problem for them, simply because they’re multi-state institutions and they cannot devise a business plan that allows them to do cap and trade in one place, taxes someplace else, some (measures) mandatory, some voluntary …

“They argue very strenuously there needs to be a uniform playing field, first in the United States and then internationally.”

Getting these climate issues and others on the front burner for candidates requires the national media to press the issue during the campaign, asking tough questions that require the candidates to explain their proposed policies – or why they don’t have any. That’s not easy given those reporters’ own sense of the priority issues.

Corell said he has almost given up on any hope that the climate issue will become a leading issue in the 2008 campaign. But a warming climate is not about to go away, and it will likely be a dominant issue still in 2012 and beyond, he said.

Becker calls global warming “the perfect problem” because it’s hard to explain clearly, it’s such a big challenge, and many of its worst effects are expected to develop over the next several decades – robbing the issue of urgency and immediacy that voters respond so powerfully to at the polls.

What happens between now and election day to elevate or sink the climate change issue in the minds of the electorate is anyone’s guess. Scientists know that the most credible signals of a warming climate reside in the evolving patterns of weather over the long-term. But another summer of punishing heat waves or a cataclysmic season of Atlantic hurricanes could play into the public’s – and the media’s – compulsion to put a face on global warming. And that could certainly change the dynamics of the campaign’s final months.

“One hell of a Katrina next September would totally transform what happens on November 4th,” Corell said.

Also see: Candidates and Campaigns Coverage Flirting (at Most) with Climate Change (Pt.2)

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...