History was made at the third and final presidential debate at Lynn University on Monday night. President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, sparred over American policy in Libya and Iran. They traded generalities on trade with China and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and made brief mentions of renewable technology and "energy independence."
But as noted by several debate watchers, climate change was never mentioned -- not by the candidates, and not by the debate moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS News. Given the absence of the topic at the two preceding meetings between Obama and Romney, the close of Monday night's event marked the first time in roughly a generation that climate change has failed to receive an airing at any of the presidential debates.
Nearly 25 years after NASA scientist James Hansen famously told Congress that the science behind the greenhouse effect was clear -- and after similarly long-lived efforts to raise awareness of global warming and to force the topic into the national dialog -- the meaning behind Monday's milestone is likely to be hotly debated. To some, it is a sign that climate change has become a niche issue -- and is now being treated like any other special interest. To others, the candidates are merely playing the political odds in an election in which Americans are highly focused on jobs and other more immediate concerns.
But in the hours immediately following the debate, activists and climate scientists simply expressed a mixture of anger and disillusionment.
"Climate change is a global threat that requires a global response. Yet neither candidate saw fit to address climate change’s implications for foreign policy," said Erich Pica, president of the environmental group Friends of the Earth Action, in a prepared statement. "By ignoring climate change, both President Obama and Governor Romney are telling the rest of the world that they do not take it seriously, and that America cannot be expected to act with the intensity and urgency needed to avert catastrophe.
"Their silence prepares a future for our children and grandchildren in which we will face deeper droughts, fiercer forest fires and killer storms, messier spills and dirtier air," Pica added. "America deserves better."
In an email message to HuffPost, Michael E. Mann, a prominent physicist and climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested he was disappointed.
"There's not a whole lot to say here," Mann said. "Bob Schieffer obviously made the decision not to broach the topic. That's really too bad. Given that climate change may be the greatest challenge we face in the decades ahead, to be silent on the issue over the course of four debates does a real disservice to the country."
While the Romney campaign has charted a far more equivocal path on climate change and emissions reductions than Obama -- suggesting, for example, that the science remains too unsettled to justify dramatic and potentially expensive action -- both candidates have been chastised by environmental groups for failing to vigorously discuss what they see as one of the nation's most pressing issues.
The Obama administration, in a sign that it is sensitive to the criticism, reportedly reached out to several prominent environmental groups in an email message over the weekend, according to The Hill blog, which obtained a copy of the memo. It highlighted numerous instances in which President Obama has mentioned the issue on the stump over the last many months, including during a visit to Mount Vernon, Iowa, late last week.
During that visit, Obama decried Romney's plan to do away with a production tax credit that advocates say has helped to keep the wind power industry afloat.
"My plan will keep these investments, and we’ll keep reducing the carbon pollution that's also heating the planet, because climate change isn't a hoax," the president said. "The droughts we've seen, the floods, the wildfires -- those aren't a joke. They’re a threat to our children’s future. And we can do something about it. That's part of what’s at stake in this election."
But many environmental advocates have been lobbying for a much more substantive airing of the issue during one of the presidential debates, and the failure of that to materialize was vexing.
"For the first time since 1984, the presidential and vice presidential debates have ignored the threat of climate change," wrote Brad Johnson, the campaign manager for the group Forecast the Facts, which launched the website ClimateSilence.org with Friends of the Earth late last month. "President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Governor Mitt Romney, and [Romney's running mate] Representative Paul Ryan have failed to debate the greatest challenge of our time. Climate change threatens us all: the candidates' silence threatens to seal our fate."
The issue did not go completely ignored by presidential candidates on Monday night, however.
During a simultaneous shadow debate between candidates from the Green and Justice parties and hosted by the progressive nonprofit news network Democracy Now!, the Justice Party candidate, Rocky Anderson, delivered an impassioned statement of the sort many environmental activists have long been hoping to hear from the two major party candidates:
The most important issue in terms of the long term impacts on the greatest number of people -- an absolute tragedy in the making -- is the climate crisis. And our nation -- although every science academy in the world agrees that this is a huge problem with horrendous consequences -- our government continues to abdicate its highest responsibility to provide international leadership on the climate crisis. And the most tragic part of this is the window of opportunity was very, very small the last 10 years to do anything about it, to save our children and later generations from experiencing the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. And we still fail under Barack Obama, who promised to do otherwise. We still fail to provide that essential leadership internationally, and the consequences will be horrendous. Later generations will look back and ask what in the world were the American people thinking to allow these people to continue to violate their responsibilities, and to continue drilling and caving into the fossil fuel industry the way our federal government -- both Republicans and Democrats -- are doing.
Writing on the Climate Progress blog, Stephen Lacey echoed a number of other activists in noting that one question from Schieffer -- “What do you believe is the greatest future threat to the national security of this country?" -- offered an opening for either Obama or Romney to visit global warming. But in the end, neither took the opportunity.
"Even as the world has seen 331 consecutive months with global temperatures over the 20th century average," Lacy wrote, "even as extreme weather gets more intense and expensive, even as the Arctic sees unprecedented melt of sea ice, and even as scientists issue dire warnings about an approaching climate 'tipping point,' the issue got no mention at all within three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate."
"Maybe they didn't mention global warming," he wrote, "because they are hoping it wipes us all out before we can hold them accountable."