Off the Debate Agenda: The Unmentionable Threat of Global Warming

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH-Boston. Today on the program we are shining a spotlight on what was missing from last night's presidential debate on foreign policy. And one of the most glaring omissions from the final Obama-Romney debate was any mention of climate change. As our environment editor Peter Thompson reminded us earlier, climate change is creating a raft of potentially destabilizing problems around the world, from millions of climate refugees, to disruptions of global food and water supplies. Yet there's been barely a peep about it in this year's campaign from either the candidates or the media. Journalist Mark Hertsgaard covers climate change and the global environment for The Nation and Vanity Fair, among others, and is the author of the book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. He joins us now from San Francisco, and Mark, what do you think is going on here? Why this loud silence on climate in last night's debate, and really the whole campaign?

Mark Hertsgaard: Yeah, you're certainly putting your finger on it, Marco, and I think it's important for people to realize how unusual this is. This is the first time since 1984, almost thirty years ago, that climate change has not been mentioned in any of the presidential and vice-presidential debates. All these other years it was recognized as a major issue. Back in 1988, and there was no hemming and hawing from the journalists, some scientists say it's true, some don't. It was look, here's this problem, what are you guys going to do about it? And this year nothing, despite the fact that there have been calls both within the press and by people in the public and activists saying look, Governor Romney, President Obama, you need to face up to this. I'm reminded of a quote from the British magazine The Economist, which wrote last year that 100 years from now, looking back, the only important question about our historical moment will be, quote, whether or not we did anything to arrest climate change, unquote.

Werman: And it's really hard to imagine the two candidates aren't making the connections themselves, so you remind us, what are the major threats that climate change poses to US and global security?

Hertsgaard: The United States is an agricultural superpower. We heard a lot last night about its military superpower and its economic importance. We are also an agricultural superpower and we just came through the worst drought in 50 years, the hottest summer ever in the corn belt, in the farm belt. Our corn and soybean yields way, way down. We are already seeing prices rise around the world and what that's going to mean is if you are a child and poor in Africa or Asia, a much greater chance of hunger, and food riots. That's the direct security connection. The last time that food prices were this high, in 2007-2008, we had anywhere from 20 to 30 countries that had street riots because people cannot get enough to eat. And that is why, for example, the Pentagon, under the administration of George W. Bush, about eight years ago, said that climate change was a major national security issue because by the year 2020, when we've got these kinds of droughts and floods and so forth, we could even see countries like Pakistan and India and China going to war, the Pentagon said, going to war to secure river valleys and arable land. SO that's the major concern here, that climate change and the kind of severe weather that we've seen just in recent months in the United States and around the world, that that can lead to the kinds of destabilizing street riots that we saw, for example, in the Arab spring. That was a lot kicked off by food price rises.

Werman: So Mark, what is the one question you would have asked the two candidates last night if you'd been with them on the stage in Florida?

Hertsgaard: I would have said, Governor Romney and President Obama, you are both parents. Your children are growing up in this superheated world. What are you going to do to protect our kids from climate change? It's a pretty simple question. I was amazed and disappointed that neither of them took many opportunities to raise it. For example, when Bob Schieffer asked, what is the major threat to peace and security to the United States in the years ahead, certainly global warming would have to be up there in the top two or three. Of course terrorism, of course nuclear weapons. But climate change is something that the military calls a threat multiplier. It's the kind of thing that can make all of those problems worse, because if you've got food riots, if you've got people who can't feed themselves, they are going to be crossing over borders, they're going to be migrating to places that do have food, and that means we're going to have huge numbers of climate change refugees in the future, and the United States is going to have to deal with that. And luckily some of our military and security officers already are thinking about this, but it's very disappointing to see that the two guys who want to be commander-in-chief don't recognize that this is a major, major issue for the United States.

Werman: Right, now take political rhetoric out of the candidates' responses, imagine for us what kind of answer you would have heard, or wanted to hear.

Hertsgaard: Well, we know what we would have heard from Governor Romney. He would have said that we don't know if climate change is really happening, the scientists aren't clear about it. He has backtracked on that from the position he held as the governor of Massachusetts. As Obama said last night, his positions now are all over the map, so his latest position is that climate change isn't real, in keeping with the new Republican doctrine. As far as Mr. Obama, I think he probably would have said we are dealing with it, this is why we have to invest in clean energy. But, you know, that's good as far as it goes, but it is so lacking in the commensurate scale to the degree of the problem. There was just a report that came out last week, there are 1,000 children a day around the world dying from climate change, essentially from, especially from, the hunger-related aspects of it. That's 400,000 people a year dying from climate change and that number is going to go up, so I would like to hear President Obama talk about not just how we are going to reduce emissions and bring down the temperatures, but how are we going to deal with the fact that we're going to have large sections of the planet burning up, in effect. They talked a lot about Pakistan. Two years in Pakistan, there was a climate change disaster, terrible monsoon rains and resulting floods that put 14 million Pakistanis out of their homes, made them homeless. If you want to know why there's that kind of unrest in Pakistan, and unhappiness, these kinds of natural disasters are a perfect breeding ground for terrorists. Or Mali, the African nation of Mali was mentioned by Governor Romney. I reported from Mali for The World, and in the north of Mali, why is it that there's this resurgence of terrorists and radicalism. It's partly because nobody there can farm any more because the climate has become too inhospitable. And more and more of the planet is threatening to come under those conditions unless we really get serious about reducing not just the emissions but putting in place real adaptation programs to build the resilience in those places. And I didn't hear any of that from either of the candidates.

Werman: Mark, let's step back just a little bit here. I'm wondering if you see a larger void here, in terms of the kind of issues the candidates and the media have focused on. I mean, we've touched on three that seemed to be missing from last night today on our program, European economy, Mexico and the drug war there, and now climate change. When it comes to looking at our relationship with the rest of the world, what does this mean?

Hertsgaard: So much of what you saw last night on the debate was simply a reflection of the very narrow-minded, inside-the-beltway Washington consensus shared by both of the parties and, I'm sorry to say, by our colleagues in the media. There were times I thought that the only topic they were going to discuss was Israel, and that's because that's a big issue in Washington. You would have never thought, to listen to last night, that Israel isn't 100 percent in the right all the time. Well, that looks very bizarre to the rest of the world which feels like the Palestinian point of view also needs a hearing. You scarcely heard the words George W. Bush, and yet so much of our foreign policy is still in response to the Bush presidency. That would seem strange to the rest of the world. And finally, climate change. The rest of the world has seen this as a reality for years, nobody questions the science any more. They are frantic to get a solution to this. They know that the real obstacle is in Washington. And yet you look and see, as I say, we have not got any kind of a consensus inside of Washington that this subject even matters, much less that it must be taken care of. So if you want to know the single reason why we didn't hear any questions about climate change last night, I think it has to do with that very narrow minded Washington consensus shared by the press that climate change is just not a top-tier issue. And you heard this, by the way also, in the second presidential debate with Candy Crowley of CNN, who I thought did an excellent job of moderating, but later on when she was asked, why didn't you have a question about climate change, she said, oh yeah, I got that question from you climate people. You climate people, I thought that was a very revealing phrase, because in that view climate change is this kind of special, boutique-y kind of interest. It's like this special concern that is not really as important as Israel or Syria or Iran. And that just completely misses the point of everything that has happened, not just in climate science but out in the real world this year, as I say, during the worst drought and some of the hottest temperatures that North America has ever experienced, that the press and that the politicians can continue to be blind to climate change is, I think, a disgrace.

Werman: Journalist Mark Hertsgaard, the author of the book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. He's also one of the organizers of Climate Parents, a campaign to enlist parents in the effort to move the political debate on climate change. Mark, thanks for speaking with us.

Hertsgaard: My pleasure, Marco.