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 ScienceDebate.org. 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 ScienceDebate.org or ScientificAmerican.com.
Election 2012 button used under Creative Commons license BY 2.0.