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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