10/17/2012 11:39 am ET Updated Oct 17, 2012

Obama's Silence At Debate On Environment Good For Climate, Activist Says


After the Obama administration issued new rules in August that required automakers to nearly double the fuel efficiency of their cars and trucks by 2025, many environmentalists were predictably full of praise.

Roland Hwang, the transportation director for the National Resources Defense Council Action Fund, commended the administration for taking more action "to cut carbon in the auto industry than any other administration in history."

Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Clean Energy Program, told The New York Times, “Our nation will be more secure, our environment will be cleaner, and consumers will have more money in their pockets as a result of the new rule."

The administration, too, seemed to revel in the accomplishment, calling it "historic" and noting that the heads of 13 major auto companies had signed on to the rules.

But in Tuesday night's presidential debate, even as the candidates spent a curiously long time sparring over the details of Obama's energy policies, Obama said little about this achievement. And to the extent that he did talk about it, he focused on the benefits it confers to the auto industry and at the pump –- not the climate.

The silence of both candidates on climate change has been well documented. As Tom Zeller reported in a blog for The Huffington Post before the first presidential debate: "Complaints that both Obama and Romney have been ignoring the true threat of global warming have reached a crescendo in the months and weeks leading up to November's election -- so much so that a coalition of nine different nonprofit groups, from the League of Conservation Voters and the Environmental Defense Fund to the Sierra Club and Al Gore's Climate Reality Project, recently delivered a petition bearing 160,000 signatures to this evening's debate moderator, Jim Lehrer, urging him to quiz the two candidates on climate change."

For the most part, environmental activists have disapproved of the administration's avoidance of the topic. But at least one prominent activist, while disappointed that neither candidate discussed the issue of global warming, said the president's reference would help voters understand the impact the new rules can have in cutting gas costs and creating jobs.

Daniel Becker, the director of the safe climate campaign, is one of a number of activists who worked closely with the administration to craft the new fuel-efficiency rules, and he argued that environmentalists could actually learn from Obama's approach.

"Obviously, this is an election and elections are about votes," he said. "Obama already has the votes of the people who care about global warming. He's looking for the votes of those who are more concerned about gas costs and jobs. So that's what he emphasizes about the standards. From my perspective this approach is a rare teachable moment in which non-environmentalists can learn that what we've been advocating has tangible benefits for them, beyond what it does for the planet."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Becker was pleased the president had not mentioned climate change.

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