10/22/2012 01:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Global Warming At The Presidential Foreign Policy Debate: The Elephant In The Room

A quick quiz: Which presidential or vice presidential candidate said the following at one of the three previous debates?

"Energy is essential to how we will power our economy and manage our environment in the 21st century. We therefore have an interest in promoting new technologies and sources of energy -- especially including renewables -- to reduce pollution, to diversify the energy supply, to create jobs and to address the very real threat of climate change."

No clue? Okay, it's a trick question. As many Americans already know, not one of the four men currently vying to lead the nation over the next four years -- not President Barack Obama; not Vice President Joe Biden; not Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney, nor his running mate, Paul Ryan -- has mentioned climate change during the debates. They did not broach the topic independently, and they were not asked about it by any of the three debate moderators.

The quote above actually comes from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spoke on the topic of foreign policy and energy Friday at Georgetown University. A steady transition to cleaner sources of energy, Clinton said, "is central to reducing the world's carbon emissions and it is the core of a strong 21st century global economy."

Whether the need to reduce carbon emissions will be mentioned during Monday's final discourse between Obama and Romney is an open question -- although given the debate's foreign policy theme and Clinton's assertion that the topic is a diplomatic imperative, the opportunity would seem particularly ripe.

We're talking about global warming, after all -- and as Clinton herself suggested, the topic is inextricable from discussions of foreign policy. Oil, natural gas, electricity and of course the planet-warming stuff that these commodities pump into the atmosphere when they are extracted or used have no real national boundaries. "We can't be an island," Clinton said.

When it comes to energy and climate, no nation can.

This is among the many reasons why leaders of the European Union, for example, are so keenly watching the American election -- fearful that a win by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, who both have openly questioned the basic science on global warming -- would undermine progress on global emissions reductions. One EU official quoted last month in The Guardian newspaper suggested that the already challenging effort of finding global consensus on climate action would "become much harder again" under a Romney administration.

climate debate
A worker prepares the backdrop for tonight's debate in Boca Raton, Fla. Can the evening pass without mention of climate change?

This is also why the Keystone XL oil pipeline is not just a tug-of-war between the company that wants to build it and environmental activists in the American heartland, where the pipeline would be built, but represents an economic, scientific and perhaps philosophical standoff involving Canadian officials seeking to exploit the oil patch the pipeline would tap; American refiners on the Gulf Coast, who would receive the resource and feed it to a global market; Chinese investors who would love to see the pipeline directed westward instead, toward hungry Asian markets; and prominent climate scientists and activists who fear the pipeline would nudge global carbon emissions past the point of no return.

This is why expanded oil and gas drilling and commercial shipping in the Arctic -- enterprises that both exacerbate and are only made possible by rising temperatures and thawing ice -- is animating efforts to establish rules among the eight nations that border the top of the world. It's also why China is vying for a seat at that table.

And yet despite all of this, climate-minded voters won't be holding their collective breath at tonight's debate. After all, at the second presidential debate last week, Obama and Romney squared off vigorously over national energy policy. They argued over oil drilling and coal. They discussed natural gas and fuel efficiency and, to a lesser extent, renewable energy. But somehow, inexplicably, neither man mentioned climate change.

MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes summed up the dismay among many debate watchers:

"Having an energy conversation without talking about climate," he said, "is like talking about smoking and not talking about cancer."

The debate moderator, CNN's chief political correspondent, Candy Crowley, made it known after the debate -- in a nod to "all you climate people," as if they were a rather segregated bunch -- that she had been prepared to quiz the candidates on global warming, but in the end was forced to cede the time to more pressing topics, like the economy.

(Taking to his Twitter account, Time Magazine's Michael Grunwald offered a slight correction to Crowley: "Proper term for people affected by climate change," he wrote, "is 'people.'")

As I've noted in several articles and columns recently, many Americans are increasingly dismayed by the lack of frank conversation among the nation's leaders -- including President Obama -- on an issue of such bearing and import as climate change.

Tonight in Boca Raton, Fla. -- a city and state uniquely vulnerable to the ravages of a changing climate, and as it happens, the site in June of a summit on rising sea levels -- Bob Schieffer, the chief Washington correspondent for CBS News and the moderator of this evening's affair, has an opportunity to force the candidates to speak to the issue on the record. If that doesn't happen, and climate change goes unmentioned, it will be the first time in nearly two decades of presidential debates that the topic has been ignored.

"I never know whether to be surprised by these things," said Michael Levi, the director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change with the Council on Foreign Relations. Levi has suggested that Candy Crowley's comment from last week -- the one about "you climate people" -- reveals precisely why our leaders no longer discuss the topic: It's become a special interest issue.

"But it's not a special interest issue," Levi said in a phone call Monday morning. "It's actually a big deal, and it should matter to the U.S. in the same way it matters to all sorts of other countries around the world -- and not just our friends in Europe.

"It deserves to be debated," he said.

We'll see.

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