Climate activists will be outside tonight's presidential debate with a symbolic airplane ticket to Poznan, Poland, the site of the next UN conference on climate change, as a reminder to the presidential candidates that renewed U.S. leadership can help avert the most catastrophic consequences of global warming.
"Last week, just as the nation's finances were collapsing, word came that carbon dioxide output had grown by record amounts," said Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, a major group of U.S. climate activists. "We need immediate action on this crisis too."
Whether or not the president-elect chooses to attend the UN meeting in December will provide "the first big sign of whether the candidates are really serious about global warming," added McKibben.
McKibben's group has chosen a unique way of amplifying its concerns on climate change on the occasion of the final debate between the two presidential contenders.
Activists dressed as flight attendants converged on Hoffstra University's campus on Long Island, the site of tonight's presidential debate, with a plan to display a giant air ticket as a prize for the candidate who wins the election.
Organizers said the ticket represents the tens of thousands of invitations to the conference sent to the next U.S. president by citizens around the world who are concerned about the current U.S. role in global efforts to stabilize the climate.
"We've had invitations streaming in from India, from Australia, from China, and from across the United States," said Will Bates, one of the organizers of the Web-based campaign.
According to Bates, a number of major environmental groups around the world, including the Global Youth Action Network, Greenpeace, the Institute for Policy Studies, and the Sierra Club took an active part in the email invitation campaign.
"People around the world know that much of their future may hinge on how the United States chooses to re-engage in international talks on climate," he added in a statement.
The Web-based campaign displays an interactive globe that shows where invitations are coming from. Those participating in the campaign are also using cellphone cameras to record messages to the next U.S. president.
One message is from from Yvo de Boer, the top UN climate official, who is in charge of the forthcoming UN conference on climate change in Poznan.
"I hope that, whichever man it is, he will see it as a possibility to come to the climate change conference...to tell the international community that the new U.S. administration is committed to the issue of climate change, committed to international engagement, committed to international action, and committed to helping developing countries tackle this important issue as well," said de Boer. "So, you have my invitation."
Despite scores of protests and demonstrations from environmental groups over the years, the George W. Bush administration never fully accepted the international consensus on the imminent dangers posed by climate change.
Before the final presidential debate, activists said they want the two leading candidates to make a solid commitment to shift away from the current U.S. policy on climate change.
McKibben and other activists say they want the two presidential hopefuls to announce a clear policy on reducing carbon emissions, not vague promises on the use of clean energy.
During their recent speeches, both Obama and McCain have given little indication of concrete measures they would adopt to enhance U.S. reliance on clean energy sources like wind and solar power.
Though concerned about increased dependence on foreign oil, so far, both the candidates appear to be in favor of exploiting oil, coal, and nuclear energy sources.
Also, neither has publicly pledged to sign the Climate Change treaty, a commitment that many environmental groups in the United States and abroad want to hear from the candidates.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change currently requires member countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 to an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels.
In the past few years, international experts on climate change have determined that far deeper cuts will likely be needed before 2020 -- and even further cuts by 2050 -- in order to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Those could include stronger and more frequent storms, changing weather patterns that would disrupt ecosystems and agriculture, and rising sea levels that could displace millions -- potentially hundreds of millions -- from major cities and other low-lying areas around the world.
On many occasions, climate experts have chastised the United States and other industrial nations for not being willing to take drastic actions to cope with the threat of global warming.
To many activists, U.S. participation in the international talks could bolster global efforts to fight global warming and preserve biodiversity on Earth.
"Think how the world would react to that kind of U.S. engagement," said McKibben. "After eight years of refusing to help, we could suddenly re-energize this global process."