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Obama and Romney Should Talk about Climate Change at Next Debate

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Source: League of Women Voters

Somebody please ask Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama to talk about climate change at the next debate for crying out loud! Or what to do about growing fresh water shortages or protecting the Internet or addressing any of the other fundamental challenges the U.S. faces in the coming years that are based on serious technological and scientific problems.


For a few minutes at the beginning of the October 3 debate in Denver, I was heartened when Obama used the terms “math,” “data” and “science” and Romney talked about “evidence.” It seemed as though we might actually get some discussion about at least one of the 14 top science challenges facing the US, as determined by dozens of leading science and engineering organizations affiliated with But it was not to be.


I can understand why the candidates may not want to talk about climate change or the ever-worsening shortage of fresh water in the western states of the U.S. How to successfully respond to either challenge is not immediately obvious and will require the cooperation of lots of people and groups who are not necessarily used to working together (to put it mildly). But these debates are some of the best opportunities for getting the candidates to address the questions that we, as a nation, need to be tackling long after the election is over. And I’d like to think it’s the job of the moderator to make sure those questions get asked and at least considered by the two men who want to occupy the White House for the next four years.


There is still time for one or more of the 14 ScienceDebate questions to come at either the next presidential debate (a town hall style meeting being held on October 16) or the foreign policy debate on October 22 (less likely, I realize, but addressing climate change is going to require lots of international attention and cooperation).


I’d argue that if we can have only one ScienceDebate question, it should be the one about climate change because:

1) both Obama and Romney have been relatively quiet on what, if anything, we should be doing about an issue that threatens the lives and livelihoods of billions of people.

2) there’s a poll out now, from Yale and George Mason Universities, that suggests that the candidates’ views on climate change could win undecided voters. As Jason Koebler writes on the U.S. News and World Report web site, “Both candidates have already acknowledged they believe the earth is getting warmer and that humans are causing it, but neither has campaigned much on the issue.”

Memo to the campaigns: the town meeting participants for the October 16 event will be made up of “undecided voters [emphasis added] selected by the Gallup Organization,” according to the Commission on Presidential Debates. So, you might expect that questions that would sway undecided voters one way or the other should play a role.

You can read both campaigns’ replies to the ScienceDebate question on climate change here. But if ever there was a need for a follow-up question or two, these fairly brief answers clearly call for it.

Candy Crowley is the moderator on October 16 and will presumably decide which participant’s questions will get asked. Bob Schieffer of CBS will moderate the October 22 foreign policy debate.

Can we make enough noise on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Reddit, and other social media to get someone—anyone—either Crowley or one of the town meeting participants or Bob Schieffer—to ask about climate change? After all, the Commission chose a woman to moderate one of the presidential debates (for the first time in 20 years I might add) after three teenagers in New Jersey “collected more than 180,000 signatures on their petition for a female moderator,” points out Andrew Boujon in this Poynter Institute story.

In the meantime, here are the answers from Governor Romney and President Obama about question #11 on science in public policy.

Question #10. Science in Public Policy. We live in an era when science and technology affect every aspect of life and society, and so must be included in well-informed public policy decisions. How will you ensure that policy and regulatory decisions are fully informed by the best available scientific and technical information, and that the public is able to evaluate the basis of these policy decisions?


Barack Obama’s Response:

Whether it’s improving our health or harnessing clean energy, protecting our security or succeeding in the global economy, our future depends on reaffirming America’s role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation. Our policies should be based on the best science available and developed with transparency and public participation.

Soon after taking office, I directed the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to ensure that our policies reflect what science tells us without distortion or manipulation. We appointed scientific advisors based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology. I also have insisted that we be open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions.

During my presidency, I have been working to improve transparency and public participation – for instance, by expanding public disclosure of pollution, compliance, and other regulatory information to more efficiently provide the public with information necessary to participate in key environmental decisions. Over the next four years, I will continue seeking new ways to make scientific information more transparent and readily available to the public.

Only by ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda, making scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology, and including the public in our decision making process will we harness the power of science to achieve our goals – to preserve our environment and protect our national security; to create the jobs of the future, and live longer, healthier lives.


Mitt Romney’s Response:

Sound science is crucial to good public policy and, as the question highlights, it is important not only to use sound science in the regulatory process but also to do so in a transparent manner that allows for public participation and evaluation. I will ensure that the best available scientific and technical information guides decision-making in my Administration, and avoid the manipulation of science for political gain.

Unfortunately, President Obama has repeatedly manipulated technical data to support a regulatory agenda guided by politics rather than science. For example, his “Utility MACT” rule is purportedly aimed at reducing mercury pollution, yet the EPA estimates that the rule will cost $10 billion to reduce mercury pollution by only $6 million (with an “m”). This has not stopped the President from trumpeting the rule as “cost-effective” and “common sense,” while claiming it will “prevent thousands of premature deaths.” The trick? Making the rule so expensive that it will bankrupt the coal industry, and then claiming that the elimination of that industry (and its hundreds of thousands of jobs) would have significant benefits.

In a Romney Administration, sound science will inform sound policy decisions, and the costs and benefits of regulations will be properly weighed in that process. I will pursue legislative reforms to ensure that regulators are always taking cost into account when they promulgate new rules. And I will establish a regulatory cap, so that agencies spend as much time repealing and streamlining outdated regulations as they spend imposing new ones.

Read the candidates’ answers to all 14 questions in full at either or

Election 2012 button used under Creative Commons license BY 2.0.





About the Author: Christine Gorman is the editor in charge of health and medicine features for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. Follow on Twitter @cgorman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. krohleder 3:48 pm 10/5/2012

    Politicians typically are not going to agree to talk about things that are actually important. That is just to risky. We just have to look at their plans and records and extrapolate what they will do. That said I have signed several petitions pushing for climate change to be discussed. It would be very beneficial for it to be discussed and debated.

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  2. 2. Christine Gorman 4:38 pm 10/5/2012

    That’s the point of having the climate change question asked at a debate. Then, if the candidates dodge it, at least we know.

    By the way, I’ll bet neither candidate is eager for a climate change question–although for different reasons.

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  3. 3. priddseren 5:52 pm 10/5/2012

    How about we dont ask them anything about this stuff because government is never the solution anyway and the more politicians stick their parasitical hands into something the worse it gets because they will just siphon off any money and mental energy away from the solutions.

    In fact, all of these listed as problems become less legitimate if the anyone things the government is the answer.

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  4. 4. sjn 6:49 pm 10/5/2012

    There should be two questions asked. With no doubt, climate change is the most significant science-based problem facing humanity. However, Romney’s responses reflect a second major issue- how can we sustain a highly industrialized technological society without poisoning ourselves and the planet.
    In both cases Romney & the GOP despite all claims are in the anti-science camp, rejecting every science based consensus on human driven climate change, the role of mercury & other toxic emissions from (primarily) coal fired power plants, and other toxic hazards too numerous to mention. Unfortunately Obama has been too reticent to make these issues high priorities.
    It is not only important that these issues be raised, but that they be raised in much more concise & specific terms than the open-ended generalities as posed in question 11.
    Specifically, each candidate should be asked:
    “As the prospective leader of the country, will you state that the scientific consensus is unchallenged that human induced climate change, if not immediately addressed at the national and international level, poses the most significant threats to our future prosperity, safety and security.”

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  5. 5. greenhome123 6:50 pm 10/5/2012

    I would also like to hear their views on US farming practices, and fertilizer/pesticide runoff into our streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans. Also, I am curious about their views on farm subsidies, and if they feel that subsidizing corn and soybeans contributes to our growing obesity problem (and thus increased health care costs in treating obesity related diseases). Or, if they feel that subsidizing healthier or organic, more sustainable crops is in the best interest of our country. Furthermore, I would like to hear their views on regulating fracking fluids.

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  6. 6. brock2118 10:55 pm 10/5/2012

    Why on earth should they talk about climate? Nobody is interested in that any more. Most people are more interested in hanging on to their livelihood by their fingernails in this obama economy.

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  7. 7. greenhome123 11:54 pm 10/5/2012

    The reason they should talk about the climate and environment is exactly because of people like brock2118, who feel it is ok to destroy the planet for future generations in order to make a buck. If your livelihood involves squandering our limited resources or pouting our land, air, and water then maybe you should do future generations a favor and find another way to make a living. And if you are not creative enough, or too lazy to do that, then maybe you should take the Kurt Cobain way out.

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  8. 8. itschrisnow 4:38 am 10/6/2012

    Even this article does give climate change the prominence it deserves. Here’s a video which proves beyond doubt, climate change is gonna decimate the US agricultural industry.

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  9. 9. jack_attack 7:07 pm 10/6/2012

    See Time Magazine article Calling on Jim Lehrer to raise the issue of climate change, at the link below:

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  10. 10. suhad12 3:26 am 10/7/2012


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  11. 11. geojellyroll 4:06 pm 10/7/2012

    A hundred groups all want ‘their issue’ debated. As a scientist I can think of a dozen topics I’d rather have brought up.

    It’s astounding that anyone with a brain would think that a couple of pre-choreographed answers from two guys in suits would mean an iota of anything.

    As for undecided voters wanting to know and this impacting their vote…absolute baloney. Is the author really this out of touch? Climate change is so far down the list of voter concerns to be almost non-existent regardless if one thinks ‘it should matter’.

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  12. 12. geojellyroll 4:15 pm 10/7/2012

    ‘See Time Magazine article Calling on Jim Lehrer to raise the issue of climate change”

    Why? Is some hack who writes a column for Time god-inspired? Time’s opinion is no more valid than that of the guy who changes the oil in my car. The era of deferring to old media is long gone (thank heavens).

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  13. 13. mihrant 2:55 pm 10/8/2012

    Terrible, terrible idea! The science of climate change is just in its beginning stages. Already it has been highly politicized to the point where the actual science has been reduced to barely a footnote. As in the middle ages we are going back to where a non-scientific body — in those days it was the church, today it is the government — is trying to establish science by fiat. Let Romney and Obama deal with our most critical issue: how to prevent the United States from going broke in the next generation. Ten years ago you never heard of trillion dollars debts. Now they are so commonplace, the public scarcely blinks an eye at them. The easy way out of our national debt is inflation, which in essence steals money away from those who were prudent enough to save. If our candidates have any brain power, let them contemplate this gargantuan clearly-defined problem.

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  14. 14. 5:38 pm 10/9/2012

    It would be a great way to elevate the issue to a much larger audience. Ironically, the Town Hall format “debate” at Hofstra University is very close to the homes of Drs. James Powell and Gordon Danby, inventors of superconducting Maglev transport for both passengers and freight. Their system is one of the most effective solutions for reducing the emissions of carbon combustion products yet proposed. In 1987, the late Senator Pat Moynihan of NY proposed an R&D program to test and certify Powell and Danby’s all-electric, quiet, all-weather, 2nd generation superconducting Maglev transport system which has the power to carry fully-loaded highway freight trucks as well as carry passengers at speeds of over 300 mph and to deploy this system on elevated guideways along the rights-of-way of the Interstate Highway System. Senator Moynihan’s proposal was defeated by existing transport interests, led by the airlines. Even though it was defeated, it was a great idea for a cheaper to construct and maintain, non-oil, no-emissions alternative logistics system for the next round of transport growth in the U.S.

    President Obama said when he introduced the High Speed Passenger Rail program, on April 16, 2009, “And Japan, the nation that unveiled the first high-speed rail system, is already at work building the next: a line that will connect Tokyo with Osaka at speeds of over 300 miles per hour. So it’s being done; it’s just not being done here.”
    “There’s no reason why we can’t do this. This is America. There’s no reason why the future of travel should lie somewhere else beyond our borders. Building a new system of high-speed rail in America will be faster, cheaper and easier than building more freeways or adding to an already overburdened aviation system –- and everybody stands to benefit.”

    Powell and Danby were thrilled that President Obama admired the Japanese Railway Maglev because Japan had based their speed record breaking (361 mph) land transport system on their 1st generation inventions.

    Powell and Danby’s new 2nd generation Maglev has evolved to offer unique capabilities for lifting trucks, operate in a levitated mode on conventional railroad tracks that have been adapted at very low cost to accomodate Maglev, and electronically switch.

    This should be America’s 21st Century System and will perfectly complement the inevitable electrification of personal vehicles. Powell and Danby have written a book for the public, “The Fight for Maglev” that describes the system and how it could be used to carry out the Interstate Maglev Project and a global Maglev logistics system. As a bonus they also describe other applications of their Maglev technology: low cost energy storage, low-cost large volume water hauling, and finally they describe their superconducting Maglev space payload launch system which can launch rapidly at very low cost making it feasible to construct a solar power electric generator to provide very cheap electric power to anyplace on Earth.

    As Tom Friedman, the noted NY Times columnists and author has wrotten,“We might be able to stimulate our way back to stability, but we can only invent our way back to prosperity.” Quote from New York Times column, “Invent, Invent, Invent”, published June 27, 2009.

    Mr. Romney appears to be unconcerned about global warming and seems to have adopted the GOP Party Line that anthropological global warming may be a hoax. Of course, we hope that he will change his mind as the campaign moves toward a more centrist view and as he is exposed to the scientific data being collected at Earth observatories and the paleological data gathered from ice core samples but his statements at the GOP convention ridiculing President Obama’s efforts to stop the rise of the ocean levels were not encouraging.

    Setting aside the threat of tailpipe exhausts to our food supply posed by accelerating global warming, I hope the candidates will respond to the potential brain and lung development of our young and newborns. We know that tailpipe emission particulates retard brain and lung development in humans. Our high traffic corridors are spewing millions of tons of this toxic material. Mother should be aware of this damage to their off-spring. Surely, we all agreen on a bipartisan basis that it is unwise for humans to do in its young.

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  15. 15. DrJehr1 8:19 pm 10/11/2012

    To geojellyroll, and all those who see climate change as an abstract concept: Corn prices went up 5% just today. So far they are up over 25% for the year. Some of you are saying, well I don’t eat corn, but the facts are that we all “eat corn” every day. Our farm animals are fed corn. Fish farms use it to feed fish, and to the few of you who live off cola drinks, it is use to sweeten cola drinks. This isn’t about a save the whales lefty idea. Global warming is an existential threat(that is, a threat to our existence, or at least a threat to our standard of living). The cost of next year’s food just went up 5% today. You won’t see headlines next year when the prices of everything you buy creeps up; they just will slowly rise, and people will say that we can’t afford to pay more for gas or coal or whatever. These price increases are due to this summer’s drought and that was related to the hottest year on record. We will pay the cost of global warming whether or not you believe it is a problem. I read geojellyroll’s post with interest because no scientist I know feels that there is any issue that is more important than global warming, not because the world is going to end tomorrow, but because it will take so much effort for so many years to even start to correct the problem. I wait, with interest, to see his list of a dozen scientific issues which are more important. Until then, all global warming deniers, enjoy your higher food prices; now, at least you know where they came from.

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  16. 16. IslandGardener 2:58 pm 10/14/2012

    Well said DrJehr1!
    I hope that the facts of falling food yields and rising food prices will start to be noticed at last by the people who currently believe (for whatever reasons that I still haven’t fathomed) that the world’s climate scientists are in some global conspiracy to fool the rest of us.
    The figures are there on the Food and Agriculture Organisation website.
    Please let’s wake up and protect all our futures.

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