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New Campaign Breaks GOP Silence on Environment

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This op-ed was written in association with The Op-Ed Project.

Climate change has virtually disappeared from American discourse since it first hit the world stage in 2006. Much of what remains in popular media is riddled with inaccurate reporting and biased opinion. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, recent analysis shows that from February to July 2012, 37 of the 40 climate references made by Fox News Channel were misleading; only three were accurate. And a one-year look at The Wall Street Journal -- with more than 2 million daily readers and the largest circulation among American newspapers -- reveals that 81 percent of the opinion page coverage was misleading.

Several organizations are feverishly working to bring environmental issues to light by injecting climate change back into the discussion, starting with this week's first presidential debate. The League of Conservation Voters launched a petition to press debate moderator Jim Lehrer to ask a question about climate change. The organization's goal was 50,000 signatures. According to The Hill's Zach Coleman, it accumulated more than 160,000. Widespread support for the petition campaign comes from grassroots groups such as Mom's Clean Air Force and Care2.org, which alone has more than 20 million members in its network.

The people have spoken. While this campaign scores points for targeting a tangible, and seemingly achievable, objective, I have to ask: How did we get to the point of petitioning for a single question about how the U.S. will handle a planetary threat girded by overwhelming scientific consensus? It would seem that somewhere around 2009, the issue fell into a political crevasse and has not yet climbed out.

Recognizing a need to find common ground, the Audubon Society and ConservAmerica are trying a different tack to raise awareness: the American Eagle Compact. Seeking a "bipartisan consensus around protecting air, water, and our natural heritage for future generations," the social media campaign is asking citizens to pledge support for common-sense solutions. The strategy is to redirect the conversation toward conservation -- a less divisive, but still transformational, goal for a country that consumes more than 20 percent of the world's energy. The American Eagle Compact's environmental prescription for the next president deemphasizes climate change in favor of less politically-charged objectives. But then it would have to, given the GOP's patent unwillingness to make global warming a priority.

Which strategy will be more effective in getting green into the next president's agenda? One pressures candidates to take a position on a singular hot-button issue. The other offers citizens a rallying cry for less contentious, but equally necessary solutions for smarter energy production and use, as well as land and species protection. In reality, we need both approaches if we are going to bring environmental issues back to the forefront. That we must petition to ask about climate change demonstrates the deeper need to mainstream environmental dialogue, which has been increasingly marginalized since 2009.

American Eagle Compact co-sponsor Rob Sisson of ConservAmerica is trying to remedy this by reminding us that conservation is, well, conservative. In his blog, Sisson explains:

"This simple declaration will send a strong message to our leaders: do not play politics with protecting our nation's great natural treasures. Remember the wise words of President Reagan, who said: 'Preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it's common sense.'"

Invoking Reagan and other presidents, as well as other symbols of our national heritage, is a laudable attempt to remind us of our shared history.

America must forge a narrative for the future even as it revisits one from its past. Environmental advocates will soon have a more common ground to bolster their story: the financial case. According to a new study, climate change is already costing the world more than $1.2 trillion, taking 1.6 percent annually from global GDP while also contributing to the deaths of nearly 400,000 people a year. Researchers estimate that by 2030, the cost of climate change and air pollution combined will rise to 3.2 percent of global GDP. Economic threats to the U.S. are becoming more tangible as well. The challenge with making the economic case, however, is that the real burden will be spread disproportionately to the developing world, with the least developed countries suffering losses of as much as 11 percent of GDP from climate change. There are no easy or clear solutions to healing this iniquity.

The ray of hope is that grassroots green organizing is getting smarter about sealing the leaks in the public's understanding of the issues, and together we're building a new story. Opening up more channels for Republicans to enter the conversation on their terms will help engage a vital part of the electorate. Regardless of who wins this election, we must find ways to sustain the conversation if we are ever going to create a sustainable future.

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