There's perhaps no friendlier place than the United Nations to talk about climate change. But President Obama steered clear this week, focusing instead on an issue that Mitt Romney has bothered him with -- an anti-Muslim video.
The omission is reflective of a presidential race in which climate change is rarely touched on and, when it is, is boiled down to a joke, or a meager rebuttal. As a political dance, the climate change sidestep is increasingly frustrating to those who believe that climate change is a global challenge that should top the ticket -- of both parties.
After addressing the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Obama returned to the campaign trail to deliver a stump speech yesterday that promotes "clean coal" and natural gas as much as wind and solar. It is a message rooted in the economy; expanding those sources develops jobs as much as energy.
But it doesn't tackle the problem that environmentalists say should be getting coverage in the political primetime of the election: Temperatures are rising, a large part of the nation is suffering from drought and, they say, something's got to be done about it.
"People deserve -- from [candidates] who are vying to be president of the United States -- some kind of actual engagement with the most serious issue of our time," Bill McKibben, a climate activist and founder of 350.org, said yesterday. "Not just a kind of smirking brush-off."
McKibben will deliver a petition to Romney's campaign headquarters in Boston today with "tens of thousands" of signatures asking if he believes that humans are contributing to climate change and what he would do about it.
He isn't waiting for an answer. McKibben's 350 Action Fund will provide its own by sending a boat up and down the nearby Charles River with a banner saying, "Denial is not an energy policy. Stop climate change."
Debates hold dwindling hope
With just more than five weeks before Election Day, time is growing short for climate change to rise in visibility. Still, activists are doing what they can to generate attention before the first presidential debate Wednesday. It will be the first of three encounters in which the candidates will have less control over their message and where, activists hope, climate can get into it.
Two stacks of boxes containing 160,000 signatures were delivered yesterday to the office of Jim Lehrer, executive editor of the "PBS NewsHour," who will moderate the Wednesday debate in Colorado. The petition asks Lehrer to question the candidates on climate change.
"If the debate is intended to cover our nation's most important challenges, climate change must be part of the discussion," said Steve Cochran, vice president of climate and air at the Environmental Defense Fund, one of nine organizations to collect the signatures, in a statement. "The threat to our environment is simply too great to ignore -- as are the economic benefits of a clean energy future."
Romney is the natural target of environmental groups, which have criticized the former Massachusetts governor for being elusive on whether he believes humans are contributing to climbing temperatures. Over the last year, Romney has said he does, and does not, think people are affecting the climate. More recently, he affirmed that they are but suggested that there is little that can be done about it without hurting the economy.
Still, Obama's near-silence is exposing him to similar criticism. He is depicted wearing duct tape over his mouth on a website launched yesterday as part of a social media campaign that says both candidates are harming efforts to address climbing temperatures.
'Past the bridge' to climate renaissance
Forecast the Facts and Friends of the Earth Action unveiled Climatesilence.org to track the candidates' broken promises, lost opportunities and denial of climate change. Obama, after promising to pursue a carbon cap-and-trade program in 2008, plummets down the charts by launching new oil drilling initiatives, avoiding climate change in a speech on gasoline prices and "exacerbating" climate change with his policies.
"The silence of Gov. Romney and President Obama on climate change is deafening," said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth Action, in a statement. "Anyone who is elected to lead the country -- or aspires to do so -- should realize that true leadership means a willingness to engage difficult issues, not sweep them under the rug."
After Obama left the United Nations this week, other world leaders addressed the General Assembly with speeches that American environmentalists have been pining for.
Mexico President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa said climate change "threatens humankind if we don't tackle it today." Brazil President Dilma Rousseff and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy devoted more time to it than the U.S. candidates have in weeks.
And Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard, whose government imposed a price on carbon last year, spoke of putting to rest the false notion that economic development and environmental protection are conflicting goals.
"Climate change threatens the secure food supply, which guarantees development," she told the assembly. "New, clean sources of energy deliver a new source of economic growth."
McKibben says it is already too late for climate change to become a major issue in the election. For that, he blames Obama perhaps even more than Romney.
"I think at this point, the idea that it's going to get a lot of attention -- we're past the bridge on that one," he said. "Any attention would be useful at this point."