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Environmental issues often get short shrift in US presidential campaigns, and this year’s election has been no exception. In poll after poll, voters report that the economy is the decisive issue. But no economy, and no society, can function without what scientists call nature’s support services. To grow food we need healthy soil, fresh water and a stable climate. To sustain a productive work force, we need clean air and protection from pollution. The economy, to borrow scholar Herman Daly’s phrase, is a subset of the environment; it cannot prosper if the environment is destroyed.
On the eve of the first presidential debate, The Nation invited some of the nation’s leading environmentalists to pose questions to the candidates to encourage both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney—and the countless journalists who cover them—to give the environment its due. (We have done the same on the issue of poverty, which similarly isn’t being discussed in either campaign.) Our seven participants are an eclectic, accomplished group who represent the full diversity of the US environmental movement. Five of the seven are women; two are African-American; four direct national organizations, three work at the local or regional level.
The Nation will forward the questions below to the two presidential campaigns for responses. And we encourage our colleagues throughout the media, including the moderators of the three presidential debates, to pose these questions to the candidates. As you can see, both President Obama and Governor Romney have positions, or a track record, on the environment that they need to answer for.
1. Doesn’t “All of the Above” Invite A Climate Catastrophe? Directed to Obama, by Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environment Coalition
Mr. President, you’re pursuing an “all of the above” energy strategy that ignores the scientific imperative to slash greenhouse gas emissions. If you are truly serious about climate change, why are you continuing George W. Bush’s policy of leasing millions of acres of public land for oil and gas development, rather than investing predominantly in game-changing clean energy technologies?
2. When Did Coal Plants Stop Killing People? Directed to Romney, by Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace
As governor of Massachusetts, you stood outside a coal plant in Salem and declared, “I will not create jobs…that kill people. And that plant kills people.” Indeed, pollution from coal plants kills 13,000 Americans each year, according to the EPA. Yet as a presidential candidate, you have embraced the coal industry. As president, what would you do to protect Americans from the coal pollution that fuels climate change and causes so much human suffering?
3. Will You Use the Clean Air Act vs. Climate Change?
Directed to both candidates, by Kassie Siegel, who is director of the Climate Law Institute, Center for Biological Diversity.
Scientists warn that without immediate, deep and rapid greenhouse pollution cuts, climate disruption will fundamentally alter life on Earth as we know it. The Clean Air Act already provides time-tested, successful programs to cut greenhouse pollution economy wide. Will you use the Clean Air Act to its fullest to protect our planet and our children’s future?
4. Don’t Republican Values Require Climate Action? Directed to Romney, by Elise Jones, executive director, Colorado Environmental Coalition
Governor Romney, your speech to the Republican National Convention ridiculed President Obama for pledging to “slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet.” But the vast majority of climate scientists warn that climate change, if left unaddressed, will unleash more extreme weather both here and abroad, causing untold human suffering, massive economic damages and an increase in famine and civil unrest. How do you reconcile your stance on climate change with the Republican Party’s core values of protecting US national security and fostering economic prosperity?
5. What the Frack? Directed to President Obama, submitted by Maura Cowley of Energy Action Coalition
Mr. President, you’ve promised to make climate change a priority in your second term, yet throughout the campaign you’ve applauded domestic oil drilling and natural gas fracking as solutions to the energy crisis, even though drilling and fracking will exacerbate climate change and pollute our water and air. If re-elected, how will you slash carbon pollution without relying on dangerous techniques like drilling and fracking?
6. Shackle the EPA? Really? Directed to Governor Romney, by Rhonda Anderson, environmental justice organizer, Sierra Club Michigan
Governor Romney, I never expected someone like me—a woman of color and community organizer—would be able to question the Republican candidate for president. I appreciate the opportunity! So: numerous scientific studies have documented that residents in poor and non-white communities are disproportionately affected by polluting industries. I’ve heard that if you’re elected president you will severely curtail the EPA’s regulatory authority. Is that true? If so, how will your administration protect our nation’s people and environment?
7. Have You Been Bought By Corporate Money? Directed to Romney, by Maura Cowley, executive director, Energy Action Coalition
Governor Romney, your energy plan is a complete disaster. You would strip back the powers of the EPA, open public lands for oil, coal and gas exploration and maintain or expand fossil fuel subsidies while cutting support for clean energy. Nor do you have a plan for limiting carbon pollution. So please tell us: How much money did the fossil fuel industry have to give you before you decided that putting us all on this incredibly risky path was worth it?
8. Will You Protect the Public Or Polluters? Directed to Obama, by Phil Radford, executive director, Greenpeace USA
Mr. President, in your acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention you promised, “I will not let oil companies write this country’s energy plan, or endanger our coastlines…” Yet your first term showed a mixed record: you stood up to corporate polluters on Clean Air Act rules and the Keystone XL pipeline but let Shell begin drilling in the Arctic and allowed the climate debate to be dominated by polluters. If you are re-elected, it will be because voters have taken one last leap of faith that you will leave a more positive, lasting legacy. What will you do to ensure public health and the environment are protected, not sacrificed for the profits of polluters?
9. Will You Fight Environmental Cancers? Directed to both candidates, by Peggy Shepard, co-founder, West Harlem Environmental Action
The President’s Cancer Panel, which was appointed by president George W. Bush, has concluded that pollution and other toxic substances have been responsible for many more cases of cancer than previously assumed. The Panel recommended reforming our nation’s thirty-six-year-old approach to regulating chemicals, along the lines of the Toxic Substances Control Act now before the US Senate. As president, would you support and fight to pass such a bill?
10. What Will Be Your Environmental Legacy? Directed to both candidates, by Ken Cook, president, Environmental Working Group
Abraham Lincoln was the first US president to leave an environmental legacy, by setting aside Yosemite Valley for public use. President Teddy Roosevelt established the Forest Service and five national parks. President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. If you are America’s next president, what great environmental success will you leave behind?
Before Wednesday’s domestic policy debate, be sure to check out Nation blogger Greg Kauffman’s roundup of hard-hitting questions on poverty.