Barack Obama and Mitt Romney face each other for the final presidential debate tonight. The conversation will focus exclusively on foreign policy — potentially opening up numerous opportunities to talk about climate and energy issues.
If the last two debates are any guide, the candidates and moderator may ignore the issue of climate altogether. But as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rightly pointed out in a speech last week, clean energy and climate policy will continue to be deeply important to U.S. foreign affairs, and the next president will play a strong role in “shaping the global energy future.”
Indeed, almost every major international issue — energy access, international trade, food prices, technology sharing, military operations — have a deeply embedded climate component.
There are a number of different angles that could be explored in tonight’s conversation. In a preview of the final debate, Brad Plumer of the Washington Post points out the national security implications of a changing climate:
There have been a whole slew of reports in recent years about how global warming could pose a security threat to the United States. The Pentagon even highlighted climate change in its 2010 defense review. There’s the possibility that droughts, floods and water shortages could destabilize key regions, for one. These things aren’t certain—here’s a more skeptical take on the prospect of “global warring” that I wrote a few years ago—but they’re on the minds of plenty of foreign-policy analysts.
Of course, the impact of global warming is, after all, a global issue. After the first debate, Andrew Revkin of the New York Times explained why he thought the final debate was the best place for a discussion around climate, “Global warming, both in its most significant drivers and consequences, remains a global issue.”
Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations touched upon this same issue in a post today. He makes a very important point about why climate change why isn’t just a single issue that can be separated from others:
Climate change is a really big global problem. You don’t need to be convinced of impending doom to believe this – you just need to accept that we’re running some pretty large risks. When the moderator of the last debate half-apologized to “the climate people” for not touching on the subject, she revealed something important: too many people think about climate change as a special interest issue. It isn’t, and the candidates’ approaches deserve to be debated. This one is simple to tee off: just ask each candidate what he’d do.
Indeed, climate is becoming less of a boutique international policy issue. Even though UN climate negotiations have failed to build a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they have made climate and clean energy deployment a more integrated piece of geopolitics.
Take the recent aviation dispute over the European emissions trading system. When the Europeans decided to penalize international airlines flying into the region for their carbon emissions, it set off a political firestorm within China and the U.S. that many feared would turn into an all-out retaliatory trade war.
“This has demonstrated that climate diplomacy is no longer confined to a discrete set of negotiations,” says Andrew Light, an international climate expert at the Center for American Progress. “We will increasingly see examples like this where one country’s energy and climate policies influence others. It’s important that we know how Obama and Romney might differ on dealing with this issue and others like it.”
Light argues that climate change is becoming intertwined with almost every issue on the international stage.
From the industrial boom in the melting Arctic, to extreme weather raising food prices, to international trade disputes over clean energy, America’s relationship with the world will increasingly be driven by climate-related issues.
“It’s difficult to be a credible international player without doing your fair share on emissions reductions and clean technology development. If a Romney Administration came in and said we’re not going to deal with anything climate related, it would be impossible to have a functioning diplomacy,” says Light.
That is why climate change must be discussed tonight. Over the coming decade, as the planet continues to warm and countries get more serious about mitigation and adaptation, it is likely that climate will be the central driver of foreign policy discussions. Ignoring it during this election debate series — potentially the first time the issue is avoided since the mid 1980’s — would be a gross oversight.