Photo of Silence of the Lambs movie

Nary a word has been spoken by the major party presidential candidates on an issue some scientists still insist posing the century’s pressing scientific challenges. Obama and Romney remain mute.

It might have revived memories of the film title “Silence of the Lambs,” though deciding which was the lamb and which the wolf may be more dicey.

Or perhaps it was the title of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” that the “it” here brought to mind?

The “it,” of course, is the resounding thud, the abject silence, that the presidential election campaign season, with four nationally televised debates, brought to the climate change dialog.


Were the media moderators the reticent lambs? Or was it rather the candidates, steadfastly afraid to go near something so scary? A failure of journalism? Of political campaigning circa 2012? Both?

Chalk it up to just another “teachable moment” gone wasted?

Photo of Silence of the Lambs movie
Were the lambs the candidates? Or the moderators?

Disappointment on the part of those who yearned to see the candidates address the climate challenges head-on was palpable. So too was the seeming ecstasy on the part of those pooh-poohing climate concerns as much ado about nothing. Those latter were dancing in the proverbial streets and could hardly contain their glee, convinced that the silence on the issue confirms their view of it as a non-issue, of little interest to the public at large.

Clearly, neither side, Democratic nor Republican, wanted to come anywhere near the contentious issue, and each had ample opportunities to raise it had they chosen to do so. That it was a particularly toxic issue for Republican candidate Mitt Romney, given his primary season turn-around and other factors, seems a certainty. His only public references to the subject during and since the GOP national convention were to use it as a laugh line to tweak Obama.

In addition to the candidates’ shared code of silence, the journalist moderators and their citizen surrogates, hurling questions during the town hall debate, did nothing to disabuse the politicians of those preferences.

It wasn’t for lack of trying from the climate-concerned community. There were petition efforts reportedly netting tens of thousands of signed pleas that climate change be taken prime-time during at least one of the national election debates. When it didn’t happen in the first one, in which both President Obama and PBS’s Jim Lehrer appeared to many to be moribund, the focus of climate activists shifted to the second presidential debate. To no avail, as CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley neither chose an “undecided voter” to pose a climate question nor asked one herself in follow-up. (Crowley, who moderated the second presidential debate, was reported by Slate to have said: “I had that question for all of you climate change people,” a choice of wording that many will say carried its own substantial baggage. “We just, you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing so you knew you kind of wanted to go with the economy.”

So again a shift of focus, this time to the third, and final, Obama/Romney face-off. Perhaps Crowley could be enlisted to put the arm on third debate moderator Bob Schieffer, of CBS News. Sure, the focus of that October 22 seated-at-table debate was to be foreign affairs, but few in the climate experts have much trouble making the climate change/foreign affairs connections.

Except that Schieffer too, like his earlier 2012 debate moderator counterparts, didn’t do so.
Oh yes, lest we forget. It’s not like the climate issue was completely missing-in-action during the presidential debates, even if the term itself was nowhere to be found. What close observer of things climate and presidential could miss the circuitous references when a New York “undecided” asked the presidential candidates during their second debate about rising costs at the gas pump?

Their answers seemed straight out of Alice in Wonderland as candidate Romney and President Obama sparred over — get this — who could get the most energy production out of federal lands. As in the people’s parks, forests, and waters.

Pointing to his administration’s having boosted oil production “to the highest levels in 16 years” and with natural gas production “the highest it’s been in decades,” President Obama raved about “increases in coal production and coal employment” during his first term, all those industry-paid ads decrying his “war on coal” to the contrary. He unabashedly used the “clean coal” jargon.

As for Governor Romney, he wanted to score points by bemoaning the Obama administration’s having increased oil production, “but none of it came on federal land.” He flagged an Obama administration criminal proceeding against oil drilling in North Dakota simply because “20 or 25 birds were killed,” violating migratory bird legislation.

“This has not been Mr. Oil, or Mr. Gas, or Mr. Coal,” Romney yelped at one point, just shortly before asking rhetorically, in the case of the XL pipeline permitting, “How in the world the President said no to that pipeline? I will never know.”

Which left the President again boasting of his administration’s efforts to drill on federal lands. “We’ve opened up public lands,” he cheered. “We’re actually drilling more on public lands than in the previous administration, and my, the previous president, was an oil man.”

Obama at places tried to put the exchange into the context of pushing also for renewable energy supplies, but to say it was all a bit Orwellian may strike many as an understatement.

That was about it for climate in the nationally televised presidential debates, leading to an October 23 headline reading “Climate change still a no-show at debates.” Despite scientists’ warnings of “a global climate crisis,” reporter Andrew Restuccia wrote … “You wouldn’t know it from listening to the presidential debates.”

From overseas, the Guardian in the United Kingdom also was among a number of news outlets commenting on the absence of climate change in the election season. The Guardian’s U.S. environment correspondent, Suzanne Goldenberg wrote of climate change as “the great unmentionable of this election campaign.”

Nothing could have more pleased those policy wonks dismissive of the climate science, of course. Could just be that they’re still dancing in the streets over the climate silence.

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...