Years ago, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spoke forcefully about the need for action on global warming:
“We cannot afford more of the same timid politics when the future of our planet is at stake. Global warming is not a someday problem, it is now.” — Barack Obama in 2007
“I concur that climate change is beginning to effect on our natural resources and that now is the time to take action toward climate protection.” — Mitt Romney in 2003
But during this election, they’ve been silent about the key facts of global warming and how they plan to address it. In the past four years, Americans have been struck by a barrage of billion-dollar climate disasters, driven by increasing greenhouse pollution from fossil fuels. From record heat waves to increasingly powerful storms, crushing droughts to unprecedented flooding, the impacts of climate change are now squarely being felt within our borders. Yet, amazingly, the clear and present danger of carbon-poisoned weather remains largely absent from this year’s presidential election.
ClimateSilence.org chronicles this slow, collective descent toward mute acceptance of global calamity. While many in the media have noted the general trend, this site from Forecast the Facts and Friends of the Earth Action lays out in painstaking detail just how far our national conversation has drifted from where it needs to be.
ClimateSilence.org also provides an opportunity for American voters concerned about the climate crisis to speak out and let the candidates know that they want the silence to end, with a petition that states:
I implore you to explain how you will address the growing climate crisis if elected to the nation’s highest office, not only for the Americans being affected right now, but for the sake of future generations, including your children.
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.
The climate constituency is large and growing. Consulting group Breakthrough Strategies recently commissioned a nationwide poll of likely voters, using the same polling firm that assisted President Obama during his 2008 campaign. The poll found that three out of four Americans have noticed a serious shift in extreme weather patterns, are concerned about the problem, and want to hear about solutions. In August, the Center for Climate Change Communication (4C) conducted a national survey of registered voters, and found a solid majority consider a candidates’ stand on global warming when deciding who to support. As Ed Maibach told National Journal:
It’s very much in the president’s interest to take a pro-climate stance, because it will win him votes.
The candidate who speaks out on climate change will reap the political rewards of brave and forthright leadership. Despite the widespread public interest, it may seem like it’s easier for the candidates to avoid the subject of humanity’s influence on the global climate. Because of the difficult decisions our nation needs to make about carbon emissions, even communicating the science of climate change elicits vicious political attacks. The job of the President of the United States is never easy — monied interests will stop at almost nothing to protect their own power even at the expense of the American people. Voters are aware of the onslaught of outside money already being spent influencing this election. Rather than fearing attack from fossil fuel interests and avoiding climate discussion, candidates can score a political advantage by leveling with voters about Big Oil and King Coal’s corrosive power, the Breakthrough poll found.
In demanding that the candidates speak honestly and directly about how they would address climate change if elected, we must all break our own silence on the scope and nature of the climate challenge. This is no easy task. Addressing the poisoning of our weather by fossil-based energy will require major shifts in our society — in policy, in personal behavior, even in consciousness. And we have no doubt that the severity of the crisis is one of the reasons the candidates are avoiding it.
But Americans of all political persuasions agree that the job of the President of the United States is to explain existing threats to the public welfare, and lead the nation in tackling them head on. Even when those threats put the very survival of our nation at risk. That is what the Republican Abraham Lincoln did when he confronted a nation at war with itself. It’s what the Democrat Franklin Roosevelt did when he spoke to a nation beset by crushing economic collapse. And it’s what both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney should do as they make their case to take the highest office in the land.
To be sure, talking about climate change will not be enough. What is needed is bold action, and that will require overcoming any number of practical and political challenges. But it is also true that not talking about climate change guarantees that our nation will not respond with the intensity and urgency required. In that sense, the equation is simple: words alone won’t save us, but silence seals our fate. It’s time for the silence to end.
Brad Johnson is the campaign manager of Forecast the Facts.