William S. Becker, Executive Director


Picture this: Former President Barack Obama challenges incumbent President Donald Trump to a televised debate about global climate change and whether the leader of the free world should be doing something about it. Trump’s advisors threaten to handcuff him to his desk, but he accepts. Game on.

This scenario might be more plausible than it seems. It breaks with the tradition that past presidents do not interfere with their successors, but this is not a conventional successor and these are not normal times.

Why would Trump agree to the debate? The official reason is that the American people and the international community both deserve an explanation from Trump about what leads led him to the conclusion that climate change is a hoax.

The unofficial reason is that Trump says he loves a good fight. He regularly trashes Obama and the former president’s policies from the safety of twitter and the White House. The question is whether Trump is willing to face Obama mano a mano?

Why should Obama want to debate? He is watching Trump tear down his legacy brick by brick, particularly on global climate change. Obama should go on offense not only for his legacy, but also for the many people who worked tirelessly to help him shape his climate action policies — and for all of the Americans, present and future, whose lives would be safer if his climate policies stood.

In fact, climate change is so serious a threat to the economy, public safety and national security that at least two more debates would be worthwhile. If he survives his many ethical conflicts, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt should debate his predecessor, Gina McCarthy. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the most vocal climate denier in Congress, should debate Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who has given speeches on the floor of the Senate every week since April 2012 to urge that Congress take climate change seriously.

In the best outcome, the debates would help those voter who have not reached a position on climate change. The American people are still polarized in their opinions about global warming, to a degree that one journalist calls a “hot mess”. Gallup’s latest annual survey on the environment, conducted last month, shows that most Americans are concerned about climate change, but partisan differences are calcifying.

“With Trump reversing many of his predecessors’ policies aimed at curbing global warming, Democrats are feeling a greater sense of urgency about the issue, while Republicans have either remained as skeptical as they had been in the past or have become more so,” Gallup found.

There are Americans on both sides of the issue who will never change their minds. But there also are swing voters on climate change, adults who would benefit from more information and a greater understanding of their leaders’ views.

But to be constructive, there should be at least one ground rule for the debates. They should not get bogged down in arguments over climate science. As important as the science is, it is a waste of time for non-scientists to argue about it. The debates would quickly descend into esoterica that most Americans, the moderators and the debaters themselves do not fully understand. The door would be wide open to “false facts”.

The bottom line here is that the American people are entitled to more than sound bites, tweets and partisan talking points on climate change. Trump and Obama, Inhofe and Whitehouse, Pruitt and McCarthy should face off on national television to explain and defend their positions on what the federal response should be. And they should do so before this November’s elections.


Sidebar: What Should We Ask the Presidents?

What questions should the debate moderator ask Presidents Trump and Obama about the federal response to global climate change? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Some advocates of climate action make the point that whatever our views on climate science, there is one thing we know for sure: There is a possibility that the majority of climate scientists are correct in their conclusion that climate change is real, that it is already underway, and that it is caused mostly by fossil fuel pollution. We can accept those conclusions, or we can be skeptical about them, but it is careless for our leaders ignore the risk. Does government have an obligation to help the American people mitigate this risk?
  2. The United States is now the only country in the world that has not signed on to the Paris climate agreement. Does “putting America first” really preclude our involvement in that agreement? We know from satellite images and other evidence that every nation’s pollution, including greenhouse gases, affects all nations. With that being the case, isn’t it in America’s interest to participate in the Paris accord?
  3. Bloomberg’s latest report is that global investment in clean energy totaled $334 billion last year. Since 2010, global investments in clean energy total $2.5 trillion. Here in the United States, clean energy investments totaled $57 billion, second only to China. Further, the world added far more solar than fossil energy electric generation last year. Analysts have been saying for several years that the world is undergoing a renewable energy revolution. Renewable energy technologies rank as the world’s biggest market opportunity. Meantime, many nations have committed to reduce their use of fossil fuels as part of the Paris climate agreement. Given these realities, does it make sense for the United States to try to be the world’s leading producer of fossil fuels? Doesn’t that mean we are placing our bets for jobs and business development on 20th rather than 21st century energy technologies?