Convention speeches, designed to introduce presidential candidates to American voters just beginning to pay attention, help define the priorities and passions of candidates and their parties.

If you were looking for more than a mention of the biggest environmental issue the planet faces, neither the Democrats nor Republicans were offering it as part of their convention rhetoric.

Barack Obama and John McCain admittedly had a lot of ground to cover. And that was before the mid-September financial crisis rocked the timbers of the nation’s economic system and of both candidates’ campaigns.

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Arizona Sen. John McCain campaigning.

But after all the attention from scientists, politicians, policy makers, journalists, authors, TV, and Hollywood, some might have expected more than a few lines about the globe’s warming climate. Especially when they had spoken plainly about it before.

Nobel laureate and former Vice President Al Gore, of course, spoke forcefully at the Democratic Convention about the environmental threats of climate change. But Obama and McCain focused their prime-time rhetoric on weaning the country off foreign oil and investing in green technologies as a way to build jobs. Obama uttered the words “climate change” once during his speech – as one of a string of threats facing the globe. McCain didn’t utter the terms “global warming” or “climate change,” perhaps reflecting continued ambivalence toward the issue among many in his party.

The omissions were striking to Stephen Schneider, the Stanford University climate scientist who remembers testifying before a congressional committee chaired by McCain in 2003. McCain was pushing for caps on greenhouse gas emissions, in opposition to the White House and others within his own party. He was the only Republican at the hearing, Schneider recalled in a recent telephone interview.

“Here’s a guy who was a maverick, who had the courage to put forward a bill opposed by his President and almost every member of his party … so he was being punished,” Schneider said.

Fast forward to the Republican convention on September 4, and the Republican maverick on the climate issue was silent about the scope of the threat and nearly so on the challenge of diversifying our energy supplies.

Key Unknown: Next President’s REAL Priorities

Schneider’s frustration with McCain, and the short-shrift the climate issue has received in these final months of the presidential campaign, is echoed by other policy experts and advocates hoping for action in the next administration.

“The President himself has got to say, ‘This is a high priority for me, and I’m not going to be happy unless these things happen,’” said D. James Baker, NOAA administrator under President Clinton and an advisor to the Presidential Climate Action Project at the University of Colorado. PCAP is calling on the next President to use the office to help cut emissions domestically and abroad.

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Democratic candidate Barack Obama
on campaign trail.

 “When pushed, [Obama and McCain] will come up with various kinds of plans … but without presidential leadership, without the president saying I want this to happen and I want it to happen now – I don’t see it [happening],” Baker said.

Baker and Schneider, among several people interviewed earlier this year for a Yale Forum article on the primary election season, said the scant attention the climate issue is getting in these final months of the campaign belies the enormous challenge the next President must face if the nation has any chance of changing course.

Obviously, the recent meltdown of financial markets has dominated the attention of the news media and the candidates, and the topic is here to stay well past Election Day on November 4. The economy, the economic bailouts of landmark Wall Street institutions and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will also place tremendous demands on whoever ends up in the Oval Office.

Will Candidates TV Debates Provide Forum?

Leading up to November 4, however, the coming televised candidate debates may offer voters nationwide their best chance to hear the candidates discuss the climate issue.

On September 16, political reporter Adam Nagourney of The New York Times wrote about how the debates are likely to be the last opportunities for the candidates to speak directly to the nation.

The broad outlines of Obama‘s and McCain‘s views on the climate challenge should be familiar by now to most reporters covering the issue. Both subscribe to the IPCC assessment of the world climate. Both favor a cap and trade scheme to coax the marketplace to reduce CO2 emissions – although they differ in the details. McCain is pushing for a huge increase in the number of domestic nuclear power plants. Obama has focused more on investing in renewable resources such as wind and solar power.

Soaring Oil Prices Shake Up Candidates’ Positions

But this summer’s rocketing oil prices introduced a new dynamic that shook up the candidates’ position papers. McCain wholeheartedly embraced expanding offshore oil drilling. Obama, though less enthusiastic, nevertheless supported an expansion.

By the first week of September, “Drill Baby, Drill!” had become a Republican convention battle cry.

Andrew Hoffman, Holcim Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan and a prolific author on environmental and social issues as they relate to business, argues that the clamor for more offshore oil drilling disregards the realities of the marketplace.

The first reality is that there are no quick fixes. The Energy Information Administration has estimated that access to new areas of the Pacific, Atlantic and Eastern Gulf would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production – or prices – before 2030, Hoffman said in a recent telephone interview.

“What offshore oil will do is it will move profits from places like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela and move it into the pockets of domestic producers,” Hoffman said. That may eventually help the stockholders of oil companies, but it’s not going to lower the price at the pump, he said.

“Let’s not be disingenuous about it,” Hoffman said. “It’s not going to lower the price of oil, and the only way to get ourselves off of foreign oil is to get ourselves off of oil.”

Schneider, from Stanford, was characteristically less reserved. He labels “revolting” and “delusional” calls for more drilling as a way to lower the price drivers pay for gas.

Nevertheless, Obama and McCain are both calling for more domestic drilling off the nation’s coastlines.

Falling Oil Production: ‘Ugly’ and Unaddressed Reality

The sparring over drilling for more domestic oil neglects some ugly truths that neither candidate has addressed head on: that global oil production is forecast to fall as soon as the next decade, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in a recent article.

The consequences of a sustained decline in production will be grim, according to the article: uncontrolled and unpredictable energy prices, interruptions in supplies, and environmental damage from climate change beyond current predictions.

Looking past the November election, climate change experts say the next President can do a lot immediately. The Presidential Climate Action Project has recommended (pdf) numerous steps a new President can take, using executive authority already granted by Congress. Among them:

  • Set a national goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and cutting national oil consumption in half by 2020.
  • Restore greenhouse gas reduction targets for the federal government, and challenge federal agencies to achieve zero-net emissions over the next few decades.
  • Direct the Environmental Protection Agency to act on the Supreme Court’s guidance and quickly issue a finding on whether greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare – a necessary precursor to federal regulation.
  • Order establishment of a public registry to all federal subsidies that promote the production of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Direct agencies to prevent political interference in federal climate science.
  • Direct EPA to consider a cap-and-auction system as a mechanism for regulating greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

Daniel Kammen, professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley and founding director of the university’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, said the next President also will need to prepare the federal government for the international climate meeting in Copenhagen in December of 2009, which will shape a post-Kyoto treaty.

“Whoever’s the next President needs to bring in a whole set of their advisors into critical places in government, and that’s going to take months,” Kammen said. “And then they need to … prove to U.S. industry and the foreign community that we’re serious, and they’ve got to do all of this by 2009, when the Copenhagen Protocol happens. That’s an impossible timetable, but that really has to be the goal of the next President.”

Moving forward will be a complicated and politically trying effort, experts said, an effort certain to be further complicated by the raucous economic and financial position facing the U.S. and much of the international community. Among the challenges facing the next President will be that of working with states that have already adopted a patchwork of greenhouse gas regulations in the absence of federal actions.

Richard Frank, executive director of the California Center for Environmental Law & Policy and a legal advisor to the California Attorney General, says he is skeptical that any President – Democratic or Republican – will make it easy for California to freely pursue its aggressive plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

“There’s the old adage – where you stand depends on where you sit, and if you’re sitting in the White House you might believe strongly in climate change regulation, but you might equally believe that that regulation properly should emanate from the federal government,” Frank said.

As the next President takes office in less than four months, scores of concerns and crises will pile one atop the other, and the challenge will be to keep momentum going on meeting climate policy goals, said Loren Cass, professor of climate and environmental policy at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

Climate Change’s Standing on Priority List Questioned

“One of the problems we’re going to find, especially given the financial meltdown, is climate change is going to be pretty far down the priority list,” Cass said.

“My fear is that a lot of political capital is going to be devoted to dealing with a lot of these other issues, and by the time they get around to climate change we’ll be in a different political season and it’ll be much more difficult to make those hard decisions that have to be made.”

Subjecting the hard task of addressing climate change to the distortions and trivializations of another political campaign, whether in 2012 or 2016, will do nothing but waste more time, Cass and others caution.

“We’re so polarized right now that any time you drift one way or another, someone automatically accuses you of bias, and people are throwing up their hands and saying, ‘Well, there is no truth. There’s just the left’s and the right’s interpretation of the truth,’ and that really frustrates me,” said the University of Michigan’s Hoffman.

“I don’t know where our leaders are anymore. We have a lot of very difficult issues to deal with, and I’d like to see more wisdom coming out of our political leaders rather than fractional fighting. I think the American public is sick of it as well, but that’s just from my perspective.”

Also see:

Science Debate 2008 Group Quizzes Candidates Obama and McCain on Science Issues

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...