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Presidential Candidates Speak out on Climate Change!

A climate change rally held in Time Square the day before Superstorm Sandy hit New York City.
Who says all the 2012 presidential hopefuls are being silent on climate?

As I sit here looking at YouTube, waiting for the New York City subways to reopen after Sandy’s rampage, I’m still struggling to digest the images of the unprecedented 14-foot storm surge that swamped lower Manhattan yesterday. And of course, like all of us, I’m wondering how many people will attribute the disaster, like this summer’s drought, to the effects of climate change.

However, I do have one gripe: I’m getting really sick of all these complaints about how the presidential candidates in the 2012 elections won’t mention the dreaded words climate change. It just isn’t true; they’ve been talking about it all year, regardless of their politics -- whether those are liberal, conservative, or veering to the center at the last minute to capture undecided voters.

Everywhere, that is, but here.

I first noticed the trend in February, in campaign speeches by Pekka Haavisto. Okay, Haavisto was the gay candidate of Finland’s Green Party, and he was hammered in the country’s February 5 presidential election run-off. So I guess we shouldn’t set too much store by his comments. It’s probably more meaningful to listen to the conservative fiscal hawk Sauli Niinistö, who trounced Haavisto by a two-to-one margin. Helsingin Sanomat, the country’s leading newspaper, asked Niinistö after the election what the priorities of his presidency would be. His answer: promoting exports, promoting human rights, and fighting climate change.

France voted next. In the run-up to the May 6 election, both candidates, the incumbent conservative, Nicholas Sarkozy, and his center-left challenger, François Hollande, gave interviews to the weekly magazine Nature (imagine that!), in which they were asked about their commitment to scientific research. Sarkozy lost, of course, so his views may be no more relevant than those of Pekka Haavisto. But here’s what Hollande said.

“Research on climate change, its effects, and our adaptation to it will be supported as a priority. So too will research on water resources and quality, biodiversity, renewable energies, and energy efficiency. I will create major research programmes on ‘disruptive’ technologies such as electricity storage, the greening of various production sectors, energy efficiency, and de-pollution of soils.”

In between the Finnish and French elections, on March 25, there was the vote for Hong Kong's chief executive. This always tends to be a rather dreary affair, because the only candidates who have a chance of winning are those who are pro-Beijing, pro-big business, and anti-tax. The only liberal, Albert Ho, finished far behind the two front-runners, with a dismal six percent of the vote. Of the two Beijing-approved candidates, Henry Tang seemed to be doing well in the polls until the summer, when he was hit by corruption charges. Too bad, because he’d just given a speech outlining his commitment to low-carbon development in the notoriously polluted city.

The winner in the end was Leung Chun-ying. Soon after his election, Leung appeared at the local version of Disneyland, Ocean Park, to inaugurate a new polar-themed attraction, which he said would “help inform millions of tourists about the threat of climate change and the importance of conservation.” He went, “This fits the government's policy to encourage people to place more importance on environmental conservation and sustainability. As a father of three children, I also think protecting the environment is an extremely important job, so that our next generation can have good living conditions.”

Perhaps thinking about this kind of bipartisanship in Europe and Asia is tedious. After all, as Americans are often reminded, we have nothing to learn from other countries. So you may want to tune out again when South Korea votes on December 19. All three candidates there have just hailed the country’s winning bid to be the permanent home of the U.N.'s Green Climate Fundwhich aims to channel billions of dollars to developing nations most vulnerable to climate change. For good measure, the leading candidate, the severely conservative Park Geun-hye, says that her priorities if elected will include working closely with North Korea to combat climate change.

But when it comes to confronting the most serious impacts of climate change, the most significant presidential election will, of course, be the one that happens on November 6. Though it’s received surprisingly little coverage in the media, the incumbent president recently said that inaction on climate change has become so alarming that the issue of the industrial world’s responsibility for the suffering of poor nations should be taken to the International Court of Justice. President Johnson Toribiong, that is to say, of Palau, the tiny Pacific island nation that is among those that may be swamped by rising sea levels.

Which probably helps to explain why the two candidates in the other presidential election scheduled for November 6 -- ours -- haven’t felt the need to say anything about climate change. After all, we don’t have any reason to worry about unpleasant things like tides overwhelming our sea-wall defenses, do we?

I wonder if the subways are open yet …

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OnEarth's executive editor has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19... READ MORE >