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Last Chance to Put Climate on the Debate Agenda

October 22, 2012 ·

Both President Obama and Governor Romney have to break their silence on climate change in the third and final presidential debate tonight

obama-romney-climate-change-global-warming-debateBoth President Obama and Governor Romney have to break their silence on climate change in the third and final presidential debate tonight. Unfortunately it appears they’ll get little help from moderator Bob Schieffer, who has chosen to focus on war, the Middle East, and China, while presumably lumping all other matters of global importance under “America’s role in the world.” 

It may not fit neatly into the categories presented tonight, but the next president’s approach to climate change will impact the real security of our nation, and global economic and political stability. Global warming – and the extreme weather, displacement, scarcity conflicts, and humanitarian crises it promises to bring with it—will affect every aspect of U.S. foreign policy. To be a responsible electorate on November 6th, we need to know how each candidate plans to address the threat of climate disruption.

The best first step to addressing global climate change is reducing greenhouse gas pollution at home in the United States—still the world’s biggest overall climate culprit. The incoming president should start by ending tax breaks to dirty energy like coal, oil, and gas, beefing up investment in clean wind, solar, and energy efficiency, and letting the EPA do its job of enforcing existing rules to protect the planet. The last thing we need is a pair of politicians falling all over each other on the debate floor to prove who loves coal better and who’s going to open up more gas and oil fields.

Barring an apology for their wanton wooing of the fossil fuel industry in previous debates, here are four things I hope to hear both candidates talk about getting done on climate and the environment in the next four years:

1. Stand up for multilateralism and global democracy. When U.S. envoy Todd Stern first addressed the 192 member countries of the UN climate convention after Obama’s inauguration, he received a standing ovation. Since then he’s worked to steadily lower expectations of what the United States—and democratic spaces like the United Nations—can accomplish on climate. Regrettably, it’s worked. Confidence in the UN as the best forum in which to seal a global climate deal is staggeringly low. But a growing chorus of international civil society and official voices alike is calling for the United States to bargain in good faith for a fair and effective climate treaty in 2015, or step aside and let the rest of the world do so.

We need to get verbal confirmation that our next leader understands the magnitude of the threat that climate change poses, and hear how he would promote multilateral efforts to solve this global challenge.

2. Put his money where his mouth should be. Taking global warming seriously means spending money to help poorer countries steer away from cheap but polluting energy toward low-carbon development. It also means paying our fair share to support communities as they adapt to the effects of warming already “locked in” by existing emissions. It’s a moral obligation and a legal commitment, but it also makes economic sense. Every dollar we spend today staving off climate chaos saves three in future disaster response costs. And since climate change threatens to derail and even roll back development gains in the global south, paying for prevention is part of protecting 60 years of U.S. investment in reducing poverty.  

The candidates should signal support for international climate finance by naming innovative proposals to raise funds like a financial transaction tax (popularly known as a Robin Hood Tax)—a tiny tax on trades of stocks, bonds, and derivatives that can raise hundreds of billions of dollars a year—and committing to put that money in the Green Climate Fund.

3. Don’t trade away our future. Trade may not seen like a climate issue, but the United States is in the midst of negotiating a free-trade agreement (FTA) called the Trans-Pacific Partnership that could stop us, and our allies, from passing laws that protect the planet and our families. FTAs give countries—and even companies—the power to sue governments for policies that they say hurt their bottom line. In a current case, Japan and the European Union are suing Canada for Ontario’s new feed-in tariff program to increase the share of green energy in province electricity markets and encourage “made-in-Ontario” goods and labor.  Sadly, the United States has sided against the climate, submitting an official brief calling Canada’s support of local renewable power “trade-distorting.” The United States could be in the same boat in the future if a member of the TPP doesn’t like one of our environmental regulations. Add to the mix a major potential ramp-up in natural gas exports to Asia, and the biggest free-trade agreement on the table is a climate disaster waiting to happen.

Both Obama and Romney should talk tonight about how their policies on trade would protect our environment and local jobs, and what they would do to correct past mistakes that undermine our partners’ forward-looking initiatives.

4. Champion real security for all. The debate tonight will no doubt focus heavily on security and the military, and there’s no better reminder of the urgency of climate change than voices from the front line. From the 2007 Blue Ribbon Panel to current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, security officials have been sounding the alarm about the increased risks of instability that global warming poses. The next president needs to make clear his plans for bolstering human security in the face of climate chaos, steps that could include cutting the military budget and spending those dollars instead on helping communities keep good jobs in the transition from military manufacturing to solar panel production

It may not be realistic to expect these words to fall from either candidate’s lips—and if we don’t hear most of what I’ve outlined here, I’ll be disappointed, but not surprised. But if the next president doesn’t take climate change seriously as a central issue in his foreign policy platform, then he’s not being realistic either.

Janet is co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies.