It is the ultimate irony that as the presidential campaign comes into its final week, the one issue that was never discussed in any of the debates has emerged with crushing impact -- climate change.
In President Barack Obama, we have a man who we know understands the gravity of the issue but who has been virtually spineless in doing anything about it. With the exception of a few brief comments here and there, he acts as if the issue does not warrant public attention. In Governor Mitt Romney, we have a man who we also know knows, given his statements while he was governor, but equally spineless, he now publicly negates climate reality in order to pander to the extreme right of his party. Thus the greatest issue facing the U.S. and the world is treated as if it does not exist. But though banished from campaign discourse, its reality has not been diminished as we have just seen from "superstorm" Sandy's devastating impact.
The reality not acknowledged is that weather events like Sandy are the new norm, not only in the U.S. but around the world. In addition to the escalating destructiveness of the events themselves -- the cost of Sandy is expected to top $30 billion -- the impact on the world's agricultural production is increasingly devastating. The summer drought in the Midwest only a few months ago decimated the U.S. corn and wheat crops. The result has been dramatic increases in world food prices. Here in the U.S. where we only spend roughly six percent of our income on food, this is not so much of a problem, although it does affect many of our poor. But for several billion people around the world, mostly in the global south who spend upwards of 50 percent of their meager incomes on food, this means food riots, migration, and increased pressure on social systems already groaning under the weight of too many people and corrupt governments.
The refusal to talk about climate change among our presidential and vice presidential candidates is the supreme insult to the American people in this election. Poll after poll shows that substantial majorities of the electorate both link the escalating extreme weather events to climate change and want stronger government action to deal the situation. What are the candidates so afraid of?
As Obama pivots from the storm to the final days of campaigning, he would show both political acuity and genuine statesmanship is he were to declare publically, finally, that if re-elected, he will commit himself to leading America in a "man to the moon" mission of transforming the U.S economy from fossil fuels to clean technology and renewable energy and thereby lead the nations in dealing decisively with climate change. If he could find this level of integrity and truth telling in himself to take a real stand on the most real issue before the American people and the world, he could potentially ignite just enough "audacity of hope" in those who desperately still want to believe in him that he could tip the scales in a campaign that seems, at this moment, to be tipping Romney's way. A strong close on climate change could potentially supercede his vacuousness in the first debate. It would express the statesman all well meaning people know he has deep within himself but which his political compromises have not yet allowed to emerge.