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Silence on climate change at the debates

Four years ago, when Barack Obama and John McCain met for a town hall debate, they met as two men who each accepted the scientific consensus that fossil fuels w

Four years ago, when Barack Obama and John McCain met for a town hall debate, they met as two men who each accepted the scientific consensus that fossil fuels were warming our planet. They met as two candidates with competing plans to deal with this challenge, though their plans differed on the details. And over the course of the evening, they were even asked a direct question about the issue.

Questioner: I want to know what you would do within the first two years to make sure that Congress moves fast as far as environmental issues, like climate change and green jobs?McCain: We can move forward, and clean up our climate, and develop green technologies, and alternate -- alternative energies.Obama: and we're not going to be able to deal with the climate crisis if our only solution is to use more fossil fuels that create global warming.

In the wake of this week's debate, that moment in 2008 seems like something excavated from the ruins of a destroyed civilization. Despite the fact that this past September was tied for the warmest in the 132-year history of record keeping, the word "climate" crossed neither candidate's lips, nor was it mentioned by moderator Candy Crowley or the audience of undecided voters selected to ask questions. Crowley explained the omission of the issue this way:

Bash: You called through all of these questions that these - undeclared voters brought in this morning. I know that this was such a big concern of yours. How did you decide which ones to choose?Crowley: We wanted to cover subjects that maybe folks hadn't heard about but still were interested in and I think...O'Brien: Immigration, gun control, and women's issues.Crowley: Gun control and immigration and women's issues were the three big ones. Climate change, I had that question. All you climate change people. We just - you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing.

"Climate change people" is a revealing phrase. It suggests that climate is a boutique issue, like NIMBY opposition to an unsightly development down the block, or advocating for the metric system. But I can't really blame Crowley for the omission, because the candidates both spent much of the night talking about the related, and entirely inseparable issue of energy, and had every opportunity to at the very least mention or single greatest governing challenge.

Instead, the entire debate about energy, such as it was, was a debate over who can most ruthlessly facilitate the total and utter exploitation of every last ounce of fossilized carbon sitting beneath the continent.

In fact, in one of the most unintentionally hilarious moments of the night, Mitt Romney was asked by a voter to reassure her that his presidency wouldn't just be a reprise of the disastrous tenure of George W. Bush. How are you different, she asked. First, Romney avoided the question by litigating President Obama's previous response. But then Romney gathered himself and began to list his differences with Bush. And, remarkably, his number one difference with George W. Bush, the very first difference he listed, was that, unlike Bush he was really enthusiastic about fossil fuel extraction!

That under George W. Bush, we hadn't succeeded in scraping every last cell of carbon from this withering husk of an earth, but under Romney, we would sink a drill and mine into every last surface across this great land.

Question: What is the biggest difference between you and George W. Bush, and how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?Romney: President Bush and I are -- are different people and these are different times and that's why my five point plan is so different than what he would have done. I mean for instance, we can now, by virtue of new technology actually get all the energy we need in North America without having to go to the -- the Arabs or the Venezuelans or anyone else. That wasn't true in his time, that's why my policy starts with a very robust policy to get all that energy in North America and become energy secure.

Imagine for a moment if, in discussion of the long term deficits, both candidates had taken to competing to say who would have the biggest deficits, who would increase the rate of healthcare costs the fastest and push interest rates up the most. This was roughly what the energy debate was like. And yet, the politics of this aren't as logic-defying as the substance.

Right now, it is looking more and more likely that the outcome of this election will come down to Ohio, and more specifically the voters in the South Eastern portion of the state that is coal country. The people who work in that industry are, understandably, worried about their future and their livelihoods. Coal has had a rough stretch over the last few years, as it makes up a shrinking portion of our domestic energy consumption. The inconvenient truth is that there is a War on Coal, but it's not being waged by the Obama administration.

No: the relentless assault on coal is coming from the Natural Gas industry. Thanks to its breakthroughs in hydro-fracking and extraction of shale gas, it can now produce energy that's both relatively cleaner and cheaper than coal. The folks whose livelihoods depend on the antique, planet-endangering technology of coal, and the one percenters who own the mines, are understandably spooked.

And so we have this asymmetry of passion: on one side of the ledger a concentrated set of interests and voters who care, in a near life and death way, about the continued exploitation of dirty energy, and on the other side, a public with a weak, nonchalant preference for us to "do something" about that whole climate change thing. Barack Obama isn't going to rectify this imbalance. The only way to get a sane climate debate in our national conversation is to create a cadre of activists and citizens and voters who will balance the ledger, who care as passionately about saving the planet from ruin as those on the other side do about their industry... because they see and understand just as viscerally as the other side, that, yes, this really is a life or death issue not for one industry or one region of one state but for the planet, and every single person we love who lives on it.