Ok, so the subject of climate change didn’t come up during any of the three presidential debates. Can we then conclude that any movement in that direction will get elbowed out over the next four years? Nope.

The nation will continue to develop cleaner energies. Further steps will therefore be taken to reduce such heat-trapping emissions but the means by which they are accomplished will deviate depending on the party in power. A Democratic White House would exercise the regulatory levers more while a Republican-led presidency would defer to the free market and allocate far fewer federal dollars.

“Climate change is a global threat that requires a global response,” says Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth Action. “Yet neither candidate saw fit to address climate change’s implications for foreign policy.”

Critics of that silence are fearful that the issue will now get shortchanged because of the partisan divide. Partly true. Political considerations kept it out of the three presidential debates: Ohio is considered the key battleground state and President Obama does not want to piss off the coal mining community there right before the election.

Many of those are actually coal miners, whose unions have neither endorsed Obama nor his challenger Mitt Romney. As for the GOP-hopeful, he is criticized for formerly favoring climate change legislation while calling a coal plant in Massachusetts a “killer.” For campaign purposes, he wants to stay away from that one, as well as from bringing up his pledge to nix the wind production tax credits, which many in Ohio favor.

Where does this leave things? For starters, the states are actively involved in the discussion and are moving forward without federal guidance. In November, California will kick off its cap-and-trade program, which will become the second biggest program on record next to the one in Europe.

At first, 90 percent of those allowances will be given to participants and 10 percent must be purchased. By 2016, the program is expected to be in full force, and a $10 billion market. About 600 industrial facilities will be affected: cement companies, oil refineries and electric power generators.

States Lead

In the Northeast, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is already in place and is a mandatory program is to reduce carbon levels by 10 percent by 2018. That plan requires large power producers to purchase credits for each ton of carbon dioxide emitted. That money is then allocated to state participants for investments in such initiatives as energy efficiency and clean energy projects.

At one point during his governorship of Massachusetts, Romney favored the plan. But he later backed away from it as the 2008 presidential race neared, although he did support modest penalties for coal-related releases. Now, of course, the Republican presidential nominee is vigorously opposing any types of mandated carbon curbs while also vowing to increase coal production.

Cap-and-trade is a program by which governments set pollution limits and then credits are either auctioned or allocated to industry. Those companies that are able to exceed the expectations can either bank their allowances for future use or sell them to other businesses that are unable to meet their obligations. As the ceilings come down, overall emissions then fall.

The aim is to push utilities toward cleaner burning fuels. But some of this is happening now as they switch from coal to natural gas, as well as because of higher oil prices that are causing people to drive less. According to the Energy Information Administration, carbon dioxide emissions are 2.4 percent less in 2011 than they were in 2010. They are also 9.1 percent than in 2007.

During the first leg of his presidency, Obama led the battle to enact a cap-and-trade program. But the fight died when the country’s economic climate worsened and when the congressional mix changed. Now the president’s focus is on using the regulatory agencies to enforce clean air laws while also pushing voluntary compliance measures.

Romney, meantime, is indebted to the fossil fuel communities and is likely to take a hands-off approach to regulation. Furthermore, part of his economic message centers on becoming increasingly energy independent and utilizing more domestic oil, natural gas and coal.

Environmentalists, though, are demanding federal guidance. Politics, for now, is paramount. But continued steps to reduce carbon emissions are forthcoming, albeit they may emerge more from peer pressure than from congressional mandates.

EnergyBiz Insider has been awarded the Gold for Original Web Commentary presented by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The column is also the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists and one of MIN’s Most Intriguing People in Media.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein