10/26/2012 11:37 am ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

The Real Frankenstorm

As forecasters in the Northeast predict a major storm they have labeled "Frankenstorm" -- the confluence of Hurricane Sandy with other weather conditions -- another, less visible perfect storm with potentially much more devastating consequences has been developing throughout the last few decades. Climate change and its resulting dramatic consequences remain a footnote in political discourse as discussion of effective climate policy has been squashed by the radical right and ignored by the media. Without serious, informed public discussion of the issue, we face potentially devastating and irreversible global consequences.

So why has the discussion of climate change been omitted -- for the first time since 1984 -- in this fall's presidential debates, in a year that may be the hottest year on record in the U.S., a year in which the nation suffered intense drought and devastating wildfires while record losses were reported in Arctic sea ice? The profound disruption of the Earth's climate may be the greatest threat ever faced by human civilization. With at least 30 million viewers tuned in to each debate, there was an opportunity for serious discussion of this crisis, or at least a chance for the candidates to argue their differences. Yet, not a word by a candidate, not a single question from a moderator or the town hall audience. Why?

The immediate political answers are fairly obvious. Mitt Romney, to appeal to the Republican base -- which has affirmed climate skepticism as an article of faith -- has abandoned his earlier support, as Governor of Massachusetts, for climate regulations. Barack Obama has made notable but modest efforts to tackle climate change. However, the vehement opposition of the GOP, the Tea Party, and Democrats from fossil fuel states has made the issue politically toxic, so that the president gave up -- perhaps all too readily -- on any push for Congressional legislation. Even Obama has declared support for drilling and has argued for renewable energy in purely economic terms.

Perhaps more disheartening is that the moderators themselves never asked about climate change, either directly or through questions chosen for the town hall debate. Candy Crowley commented after the second debate: "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"

Her comment says a lot, not just about the news media, but also about the inability of American democracy to successfully confront the climate crisis. Crowley's "all you climate change people" labels global warming as a special interest concern. This ties in with a prevailing myth about ecological issues: They are luxury concerns of environmentalists and scientists, involving a far-off country called 'nature' removed from the daily, pressing concerns of the economy, health care and national security. It is no coincidence that after a brief wave of interest in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth, public concern about climate change, and even public acceptance of the idea that humans are behind it, fell off when the recession hit.

Particularly in the era of the 24-hour news cycle, democracies have trouble addressing issues that are either long-term or complex. The effects, for now, of climate change are hard to distinguish from natural variability, and the most serious impacts are decades or more away. And while the costs of climate change are spread across the whole population and future generations, those most affected by climate regulation are concentrated among a relatively few, well-funded industries, most notably fossil fuel producers. A small set of corporate giants with almost endless amounts of money and influence are able to successfully organize to both pressure elected officials to block climate legislation and lull the general public with climate skepticism.

As one of the world's top energy consumers and producers, our nation has strong economic, cultural, and political incentives to resist reductions in both the consumption and production of fossil fuels. This resistance can cut across party lines, as when Democrats in Congress represent states or districts high in fossil fuel production.

But it is the persistent American frontier ethos that assumes unlimited natural resources, champions individual success over the common good, and decries government regulation of the economy or private property that makes climate regulation -- and indeed any acknowledgment of anthropogenic climate change -- an anathema to many of us. Conservatism in Europe has a communitarian character that is open to environmental concerns. American conservatism, by contrast, draws on the frontier ethos to push an increasingly radical libertarianism.

This "perfect storm" of immediate economic woes, deeply entrenched corporate and resource interests, political processes, prevailing cultural norms and ideologies, and radicalization on the right has demolished any effort at effective climate policy and serious, informed public discussion of the issue.

Can the U.S. muster the political will to address the climate crisis? At the very least, it will take extraordinary leadership to challenge Americans' prevailing attitudes, educate them about climate change, and resist and even neutralize powerful special interests. Obama is to be commended for finally bringing some federal policy to bear on this problem. Yet in passing up the unparalleled public forum of a presidential debate to raise this issue, both he and Romney demonstrated that such leadership is still a long way off.