Will This Be The First Time The Debates Are Silent On Climate Since 1988?

By Brad Johnson

1988. That was the year of James Hansen’s now famous congressional testimony on climate change. It was also the first year that climate change came up in the presidential debate cycle. On October 5, 1988, Chicago Tribune reporter Jon Margolis asked Vice Presidential candidates Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle about climate change and fossil fuels:

We’ve all just finished — most America has just finished one of the hottest summers it can remember. And apparently this year will be the fifth out of the last nine that are among the hottest on record. No one knows, but most scientists think, that something we’re doing, human beings are doing, are exacerbating this problem, and that this could, in a couple of generations, threaten our descendants’ comfort and health and perhaps even their existence. As Vice President what would you urge our government to do to deal with this problem? And specifically as a Texan, could you support a substantial reduction in the use of fossil fuels which might be necessary down the road?

Both agreed that it was time to act.

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Today, the science of climate change is incontrovertible. The past 17 years have been hotter than 1988 — the hottest year ever recorded at the time. Crushing impacts like drought, wildfires, flooding, sea level rise, and ocean acidification are now hitting American communities. Instead of a substantial reduction in the use of fossil fuels, consumption and pollution have grown exponentially. And, yet, if Barack Obama and Mitt Romney don’t discuss climate change tonight, it will be the first time since 1988 that the issue was ignored during a presidential debate cycle.


That’s right: in 1992, vice presidential candidate Al Gore shamed Dan Quayle and James Stockdale with an impassioned call to action on climate change as they promoted myths of scientific uncertainty; in 1996 Jack Kemp attacked Gore for sowing “fear on climate”; in 2000 Gore made an even stronger case for action as Bush questioned the science; in 2004 Kerry blasted Bush’s anti-scientific record; in 2008 even Sarah Palin described how climate change was damaging Alaska. In a debate with John McCain, Barack Obama blasted McCain’s efforts on climate change for their insufficiency:

So it’s easy to talk about this stuff during a campaign, but it’s important for us to understand that it requires a sustained effort from the next president.

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In 2012, however, the candidates and the moderators are locked in a conspiracy of silence. The moderators think only “you climate change people” care that the candidates talk energy, the economy, and national security without mentioning the greatest threat to civilization. The Obama campaign hopes environmentalist voters will be satisfied with targeted messages and offhand mentions in campaign rallies, while the president focuses swing-state attention on a drill-baby-drill, Mr. Coal, all-of-the-above message. Romney’s silence on climate change allows him to maintain the support of the carbon barons that rule the Republican Party, while still being able to act on the national stage like something other than a pro-pollution conspiracy theorist. In short, both candidates are more concerned with the political strength of the fossil-funded Tea Party than either the outrage of environmentalists or the immorality of treating climate catastrophe like a fringe concern.


The refusal of the candidates for president and vice president to confront climate change is a clarion call for anyone who cares about the fate of humanity. We shall be represented by two of the four men for the next four years — their choice of silence in the face of calamity renders us mute as a nation. We have no choice but to redouble our efforts in demanding that our politicians, corporate leaders, and the media recognize that global carbon pollution is the single greatest threat to our economic well being, our health, our national security.

For the past two months, members of Forecast the Facts, Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen, Energy Action Coalition, and other groups have been protesting the climate silence of both candidates. We will continue that protest today. In Florida, young people are marching to the debate location to demand that Romney and Obama break their silence. Across the internet, people are covering their profile pictures with duct tape, symbolizing how the men who call themselves leaders have taken away our voice.

In solidarity with the climate activists marching in the streets in Florida, and those blockading the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in Texas, leading climate activists from Bill McKibben to Jane Fleming Kleeb have added the CLIMATE SILENCE twibbon before the final presidential debate. While we can’t guarantee that those in power will respond, one thing we can guarantee today, tomorrow, and every day hence: we will be heard. Please take a moment to join us.

Brad Johnson is the campaign manager of Climate Silence.