The groups said Obama’s actions, as well as references to climate change in stump speeches, show a clear contrast with GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has said he'll to roll back air pollution rules and expand oil and gas drilling.
But not everyone in the environmental movement was as forgiving.
“I won't make the same excuses for Obama. I think it was a failure. You can’t talk about energy policy without talking about climate policy. They are the same thing,” Kert Davies, research director with Greenpeace, told The Hill about Obama’s handling of the energy question in Tuesday’s debate.
Obama tackled climate change in an Iowa campaign stop on Wednesday, reiterating his support for a crucial wind industry incentive that Romney opposes.
“My plan will keep these investments [in wind power], and we’ll keep reducing the carbon pollution that’s also heating the planet because climate change isn't a hoax. The droughts we've seen, the floods, the wildfires — those aren't a joke. They’re a threat to our children’s future. And we can do something about it. That's part of what’s at stake in this election,” he said.
Jeff Gohringer, a spokesman with the League of Conservation Voters, noted Obama has made similar comments on the campaign trail. Still, he said addressing climate change before a captive national audience would have a greater impact.
Many leading green groups said Obama had a chance to massage climate change into the energy portion of Tuesday’s debate, but they didn't blame him for not doing so.
Instead, they said moderators for the two presidential debates should have directly asked the candidates about climate change. They said that would put Romney on the defensive for views they say are out of step with most voters.
CNN's Candy Crowley, who moderated Tuesday's debate, said she ran out of time to ask a question she had prepared on climate change.
“The candidates can’t answer a question that’s not asked,” Gohringer said. “The reality is the moderator should bring it up.”
They also said Obama would not have had time to both talk about climate change and deflect what they called misleading energy talking points from Romney.
“Romney started that question. The president had to go through and correct several things that Romney said that were not true. It was a timing issue,” Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, told The Hill.
Environmental groups have pushed the presidential campaigns to address climate change all summer. Many thought the issue would be more salient after record-breaking temperatures, wildfires, storms and a record drought.
But Obama and Romney have yet to seriously engage in a discussion on climate change, save for exchanging one-liners a week apart during their respective convention speeches. Some environmentalists believe Democrats are trying to stay away from the issue after failing to pass a cap-and-trade bill in 2009.
Davies of Greenpeace said Obama has let the Romney campaign control the dialogue on climate change. He said the GOP ticket's attacks on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules have transformed climate change into an economic topic that has both candidates spending considerable time and money courting coal voters in swing states.
“That’s clearly what they’re concerned about. But they’re reacting to the opposition rather than having a proactive strategy, and they’re clearly being cowed by the coal industry,” he said.
Joe Romm, a prominent climate blogger and senior fellow with the Center for American Progress — a think tank with White House ties — accused Obama senior adviser David Axelrod of telling Democrats to stop talking about climate change.
While the environmental groups made clear they have been disappointed with the candidates’ limited discourse on climate change, they pointed to Obama’s record — such as EPA rules and new vehicle fuel efficiency standards — as proof he is serious about the issue.
“Rhetoric is important, but action is really what we’re after,” Kao, of the Sierra Club, said. “It’s true that the president has taken action on climate disruption ... and that Mitt Romney would roll back progress.”