What’s the best climate question to debate?

Over the weekend, Andy Revkin posted on this subject on his groundbreaking blog Dot Earth. He noted the absence of any discussion of climate change in the first of the three scheduled presidential debates in the run-up to November’s election.

Given that there are two more presidential debates addressing both foreign and domestic issues, Mr. Revkin posed this question for readers: What would you ask, if there’s a chance for a question related to climate and energy?

Then he offered his candidate:

“While persistent and deep uncertainty surrounds the most important potential impacts from and responses to greenhouse-driven global warming (see David Roberts, Michael Levi and this list of reviewed research for more), the long-term picture of a profoundly changed Earth is clear. What do you see as the best mix of achievable policies to limit environmental and economic regrets?”

A great formulation! A thoughtful and comprehensive question! If we could tease an equally thoughtful answer to this question out of each candidate, the voting public would gain a great deal.

Mr. Revkin’s question poses major challenges to the candidates that might make it difficult for them to provide such a suitably thoughtful response, particularly in the heat of the moment. First, each candidate would struggle, in real time, to sort out the political consequences of the different possible responses. It’s not clear what the several publics that comprise the electorate are hoping to hear on this one. How to communicate with the voters he’s trying to reach? Second, the policies and the issues are intrinsically complex. Even in the quiet of a study or library, the candidates might be forgiven should they find themselves at sea. It’s not obvious that clear, well-reasoned alternatives exist. And third, how can the candidate bring the subject down to a tangible level – a song the viewers and audience can hum as they leave the debate? Considerations such as these might paralyze the debaters.

Might it be possible to touch on the issue in some less-daunting ways that would reveal the candidates’ thinking, if only imperfectly?  How about a question such as:

President Theodore Roosevelt left an extraordinary legacy for 20th century America by fostering the growth of the national parks and national forests. Even in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln found the opportunity to give Yosemite a boost. Is it possible for a president and a sitting Congress today to leave a corresponding environmental legacy to the nation and the world in the 21st century? What might that legacy look like?

Here’s another:

Philosophers encourage us to “be the change we want to see in the world.” Others encourage us to “walk the walk.” As we look at environmental degradation worldwide, what concrete example could America give the world that would encourage other peoples to follow suit and protect their own environment, habitat, and biodiversity?

Your thoughts?

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5 Responses to What’s the best climate question to debate?

  1. Steve Bloom says:

    “While persistent and deep uncertainty…” a great formulation? Hard to see how that could be. Note that the Roberts and Levi discussions upon which he relies reference only the models, and contrast that with Jim Hansen’s statement that the evidence for dangerous climate change is first paleoclimate, second modern direct observations and only then model results. Revkin needs to do this to imagine that the big problems are only in the long term, and that we therefore are not faced with an emergency. Isn’t it pretty to think so?

    Re your two alternatives, trying to ask about climate disruption without actually mentioning it seems futile.

  2. The Precautionary Principle says we should take no action until we are sure it will do no harm. Should we spend billions of dollars now potentially mitigating a hypothetical threat – and cause real harm to the poor, the old and the sick, OR should we apply the Precautionary Principle and wait until we know enough to balance tomorrow’s risks against today’s real harm? If we should spend billions now, how many? In what ways? While I respect Revkin, I’m quite happy the debates are focused on living on this real world, rather than focusing on hypothetical threats to someone’s projections of what a future earth might look like.

    What particularly bothers me about Revkin’s formulation (as it does Steve Bloom above) is that he appears to view worst case modeling results as probable rather than possible. It is the height of hubris to believe we can project what will happen economically or socially or technologically even 25 years from now, let alone what the world may be like in 2050 or 2100 AD. Projections of CO2 levels and temperatures that far in the future requires a touching faith that little will change economically or socially or technologically. To elevate projections such as these to the policy arena at this point seems a journey into the heart of darkness.

  3. Steve Bloom says:

    Er, no, John, Revkin avoids the worst-case model results like the plague.

    • John Plodinec says:

      Maybe so, but the only way he can justify his “the long-term picture of a profoundly changed earth” is either by pointing to model predictions or by pointing to studies that are based on those same climate change models. He may consciously eschew the worst cases, but it sure seems that he has unconsciously drunk the modelers’ Kool-Aid.

  4. mwgrant says:

    Things are very unsettled and messy at this time in climate world and I feel that exploring the candidates’ views of the problem(s) is more important than specific policies, and hence, I might consider a question sequence like the following: given the current state of the climate change debate, and given that we can not reset history, what is/are the major decisions to be made, what are the present alternative approaches—no action, staged response alternatives, all out response, etc.–for action? What are possible decision criteria? What do you see as the upsides and downsides to each alternative? The preceding may be sloppy phrasing on my part, but the idea is to probe the candidates’ views and understanding of the overall problem incorporating the component political, technical, societal, and economic contexts. How well can the candidates’ define the problem without pandering to a constituency?

    In the question I would avoid explicit reference to the precautionary principle—it is too much of a pre-wrapped bias (as a crutch or as a club) to hand a candidate. And there are multiple definitions of the principle. If a response uses it fine—that may provide insight about the candidate. In asking the question I would also not explicitly ask for selection of an alternative—let the candidate reveal that if he is so inclined.

    Before asking policies, determine how well or how poorly the candidate (or his team) has conceptualized and formulated the problem. It is ‘simple’ to only list one’s policies or the dodge the question entirely. In any case, one obtains no information on how those policies were arrived at. Also any policies espoused by either candidate in the next month is probably not worth the paper it is printed on, figuratively speaking.

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