There was a fair amount of chatter on the internet about the lack of climate change in the first presidential debate, popularized as #climatesilence. I weighed in last week saying that I didn’t think climate change should have been brought up. I expect it will be brought up in the second or third debates, where the focus moves to foreign and domestic policy (debate #2) and foreign policy (the final debate).

Andy Revkin at Dot Earth followed up by directly addressing the climate change/debate question head-on:

But in the context of greenhouse-driven climate change, too much of a focus on domestic policies or legislation can obscure bigger realities:

In Australia, for example, a domestic carbon price has been set but carbon exports (Australian coal flowing to Asia) aren’t counted.

Consider this Financial Times headline: “U.S. coal exports to Europe soar.” While campaigners have focused on stopping coal export projects in the Pacific Northwest targeting Chinese demand, there’s a boom in American coal exports to Europe (hey, wasn’t Europe a leading supporter of the Kyoto Protocol?).

Without taking the international consequences of our policies in to account, we’re only looking at a limited part of the issue, which is why I wrote that I didn't miss climate change in the domestic policy debate.

With that in mind, I also want to point you to remarks made by Todd Stern, the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, at Dartmouth College this summer. Climate change is a vast, unwieldy issue, involving economies and politics of every country on Earth. To not consider the global nature of climate change would be missing the complexity of the issue. Mr. Stern explains how the past several climate negotiations, while largely panned, have been successful at embracing the global nature of the issue:

For us, the pivotal features of the Durban Platform that will shape the contours of the new agreement are that it is to be “applicable to all Parties” and that it applies to the world of the 2020s. “Applicable to all” matters because it means the 1990s firewall, according to which commitments were only applicable to some, is finished. The 2020s matter because by that time we will be 30 years removed from the original 1992 division of countries, making that division ever more anachronistic.

None of this means that all countries will be expected to limit emissions in the same way. Differentiation among parties is an accepted premise of climate diplomacy. But in the world of the Durban Platform, it can no longer be the differentiation of two distinct categories of countries; rather, it will have to be the differentiation of a continuum, with each country expected to act vigorously in accordance with its evolving circumstances, capabilities and responsibilities.

These initial observations about the Durban Platform are the only the start of the discussion. A live and active debate is just beginning about the kind of legal agreement that should take effect after 2020.

For many countries, the core assumption about how to address climate change is that you negotiate a treaty with binding emission targets stringent enough to meet a stipulated global goal – namely, holding the increase in global average temperature to less than 2 centigrade above pre-industrial levels – and that treaty in turn drives national action. This is a kind of unified field theory of solving climate change – get the treaty right; the treaty dictates national action; and the problem gets solved. This is entirely logical. It makes perfect sense on paper. The trouble is it ignores the classic lesson that politics – including international politics – is the art of the possible.

This approach allows for flexibility in letting each country craft a solution tailored to their individual economies and politics. Imposing limits on greenhouse gas emissions for each country on a strict timeframe might make us sleep better at night, but it as the high likelihood of gridlock and failure. And also, because it is flexible, goals can be updated as countries emerge from developing status, or other unforeseen circumstances.

It’s keeping the rest of the global community, where each country has its own funky domestic policies and politics and development goals, in mind with our goals for prosperity and development. Mitt Romney essentially articulated this point when he answered the question on climate change. He said:

The reality is that the problem is called Global Warming, not America Warming. China long ago passed America as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. Developed world emissions have leveled off while developing world emissions continue to grow rapidly, and developing nations have no interest in accepting economic constraints to change that dynamic. In this context, the primary effect of unilateral action by the U.S. to impose costs on its own emissions will be to shift industrial activity overseas to nations whose industrial processes are more emissions-intensive and less environmentally friendly. That result may make environmentalists feel better, but it will not better the environment.

Will climate change come up in next debates? It should. It’s the most important long-term environmental issue facing this planet, affecting economies and people around the world.