Why It’s Impossible To Ignore Climate In A Presidential Foreign Policy Debate

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.

18 Responses to Why It’s Impossible To Ignore Climate In A Presidential Foreign Policy Debate

  1. prokaryotes says:

    Watching the final presidential #debate tonight? I’ll be leading @Current’s coverage; tune in at 8pm ET/5pm PT.

  2. prokaryotes says:

    Global drought a ‘new normal’: report
    NEW YORK, Oct. 18 (UPI) — Increasing drought conditions across the planet are part of a “new normal” which oddly presents new business opportunities, a new Bank of America Merrill Lynch report says.

    The report comes just after insurer Munich Re’s findings that North America has borne the brunt of weather-related natural catastrophes, with 30,000 deaths and insured losses of $510 billion in the 1980-2011 period.

  3. SecularAnimist says:

    Stephen Lacey wrote: “If the last two debates are any guide, the candidates and moderator may ignore the issue of climate altogether.”

    We don’t need the last two debates as a guide.

    The moderator of this debate, Bob Schieffer from CBS, has already publicly announced the six topics to be debated, and they do not include climate change.

    So the only way that climate change would come up, would be for either Obama or Romney to introduce the subject on their own, which is unlikely, not to mention against the agreed-upon rules.

    So we can pretty much be assured that all four debates will maintain the deafening silence.

  4. Speake says:

    Winter is coming.

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    Everything you say is true, Stephen, but the gag order from the oil companies is likely to still be in force.

    Obama could really put Romney in a corner if he phrases his remarks properly, and responds well to Romney’s inevitable rejoinder of “you just want to raise energy prices”. It will be very interesting if the subject of climate change somehow ends up being raised.

    btw, human rights organizations from around the world are sending monitors for the US elections. This is a direct response to Republican-stolen elections in 2000 and 2004.

  6. prokaryotes says:

    The problem is that voting without paper trails (e-voting in general) is unreliable because it can be manipulated very easily.

    Just talk with a computer security expert and he can show you how you can hack any evoting under the most circumstances.

  7. prokaryotes says:

    Some good news in those regards…

    Eliminated: After ten years and €55m, e-voting machines finally disposed of

  8. Chris Winter says:

    Mike Roddy writes: “btw, human rights organizations from around the world are sending monitors for the US elections. This is a direct response to Republican-stolen elections in 2000 and 2004.”

    This is good news in light of some of the things that have been happening — like voter registration forms being discarded by GOP-contracted organizations in Virginia.

    I’m not saying that international monitors would catch that sort of thing. But watchers should help keep things honest.

  9. Vine says:

    Your right when you say this is a World issue. Climate Change policy has to be the number 1 issue. Where from Australia and our country has erratic weather – longest droughts and then full on floods.

    Economic security is about protecting our seas and lands for future generations and not only thinking about short term politics. Thank you for your insight.

  10. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Good thing too. I have commented on this under Brad Johnson’s article below but the polls are too close now to risk a huge backlash against Obama on climate that could push Romney over the edge, ME

  11. Sorry I can’t resist posting this in response to the headline: ‘Why it’s IMPOSSIBLE to ignore climate in a presidential foreign policy debate.”
    Diego Montoya (‘The Princess Bride’):
    “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” :))))))….These guys could ignore climate if they were having the debate on the last square mile of remaining ice in the ANTarctic!

  12. Jon Jermey says:

    Well, they ignored it. Hard to tell who to vote for, now that both candidates have proved they can do the impossible.

  13. Mark E says:

    I am not as depressed at the apparent climate science gag rule as I might be and here is why:

    1. Both big parties embrace capitalism

    2. Capitalism *requires* nonstop economic growth

    3. There is no real surprise that the Tea Party appeasing GOP did not bring up global warming.

    4. As for the DEMs, they want to solve the problem via capitalism and economic growth, and to do that you need a population with optimism.

    There is a bit of cognitive dissonance in this approach, however, since the DEMs strategy is far slower than we need. On the other hand, if under capitalism (which requires nonstop economic growth) we can only achieve as much as the population’s optimism is capable of achieving, perhaps being forthright about the looming civilization-altering amalgam of interlinked climate crises would reduce our psychological capacity to generate the very growth the DEMs are counting on.

    If that’s the reason for the climate science, it absurdly ignores the fact that nonstop economic growth is impossible. But imagine campaigning for president on an anti-capitalism platform…..

    It just may be that we’re collectively on the same “natural consequences” educational program that teenagers embark upon when they start sticking their heads in the sand with respect to their elders’ advice? Beats me how a president can change this, or what their election speech might look like.

    Fantasy Land:

    Pretend Obama gets re-elected, and asks YOU to write his January State of the Union address. So you set aside Joe’s book, “Language Intelligence” and start writing….. what should Obama say?

  14. Rollory says:

    It was Inigo, not Diego. Diego was the father.

  15. Thank you- gotta go back and watch that again.

  16. Ric Merritt says:

    Is is just my imagination, or has there been a dawning of detente in the ongoing spats between Joe R and Andy Revkin? Up till recently, a lot of digs across the fence, tending to ratchet up the annoyance level even when I didn’t feel it was strictly necessary. Lately, each citing the other in a neutral to favorable manner. Did BO have youse guys over to the WH to kick back over an appropriate beverage?