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Derrick Z. Jackson

Missing from the debates: Climate change

Climate activists demonstrated during COP21, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Paris, December 2015.
Climate activists demonstrated during COP21, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Paris, December 2015. Thibault Camus/AP

Unless Wednesday’s presidential debate moderator Chris Wallace changes his mind, the three presidential debates will add up to four-and-a-half hours without one question from the moderators about climate change. That would be an utter embarrassment to the American political process, a fitting final demonstration of how gutter politics have ignored an issue that affects every person in the United States, and the world.

Instead, Wallace has chosen these topics: debt and entitlements, immigration, the economy, the Supreme Court, foreign hot spots, and the candidates’ fitness to be president. All of these are important, but climate change has massive tentacles in all of them, a critical area for candidates to demonstrate their fitness to occupy the White House.

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Consider the proposals of Republican nominee Donald Trump. He calls climate change a Chinese hoax to undermine the American economy. If he wins the White House, he pledges to take the United States out of the Paris climate accords, tear up President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and roll back many of Obama’s rules enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency — rules that survived Supreme Court challenges from the fossil fuel industry.

As many developed countries, particularly those in Northern Europe, use wind and solar power to revive moribund towns with thousands of modern clean-energy jobs, Trump boasts the restoration of dirty fossil fuel jobs, unfettered fracking on public lands, and approval of the Keystone tar sands pipeline. That sounds like the oil and gas industry will remain entitled to its $4 billion a year in federal subsidies.

Compared to this, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton sounds like the CEO of Greenpeace. But she, too, needs to be questioned on her views about climate change. She should have to explain clearly, for instance, how long the United States should use natural gas as a “bridge” fuel toward renewables. Some regions of the United States, including New England, are now so addicted to gas that the original benefits of being a cleaner fossil fuel than coal and oil are disappearing.

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Clinton should also be pressed on whether she will keep the EPA as strong as it has become under Obama and on how she will expand renewable energy. She has many positions on paper that look good, but few numbers behind them. It was easy for her to campaign recently alongside Al Gore in Miami and say he would advise her on climate change if she wins the White House. It is another thing to have her own energy vision to convince Americans to be, as she claims, “the 21st century clean-energy superpower.”

It would seem that the prospect of being a clean-energy superpower — amid current fossil fuel entitlements, the prospect of massive migrations, the direction of the economy, and continued fights in the Supreme Court — would make climate change worthy of at least one question from one moderator in the three debates. Chris Wallace should ask the question. If he doesn’t, we will lose an important opportunity to learn who is fit to be president.


Derrick Z. Jackson is a Globe contributing columnist and a climate and energy fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He can be reached at jackson@globe.com.