Joe Biden. Photo: Mark Stehle / AP

Joe Biden.

Tonight’s vice presidential debate is by far the most anticipated debate of this election cycle. In the right corner, newcomer Sarah Palin. In the left, Joe Biden, a senator who’s been in office since Palin was “in, like, the second grade.” A series of klutzy and unflattering interviews with Palin on CBS this week has audiences primed for some colorful statements from her, while Biden’s decades-long history of gaffes could also provide some fun (remember the Dunkin’ Donuts remark?).

We’ve already brought you the green take on Palin and all kinds of info on Biden, including an overview of his green record, a roundup of environmentalist opinion on him, and a Grist interview conducted with him in 2007.

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But in recent weeks, both candidates have fumbled while talking about energy and climate issues, prompting new questions about where they really stand on some issues. Will we get answers to those questions tonight? And what other topics would environmentalists like to see addressed? Grist asked environmental leaders and bloggers for their thoughts.

Sarah Palin. Photo: Kiichiro Sato / AP

Sarah Palin.

Palin, Putin, and polar bears (oh my!)

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One man who has debated Palin in the past says she is “a master … at the fine art of the nonanswer, the glittering generality.” Environmentalists are hoping she’ll get more specific tonight.

Foremost in the minds of most enviros is the question of global warming — Palin has been inconsistent in her statements on the issue. In an August interview with Newsmax, she said, “A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location … I’m not one, though, who would attribute it to being man-made.” Last month, she said, “I believe that man’s activities certainly can be contributing to the issue of global warming, climate change.” And earlier this week, she answered a question from Katie Couric about climate change by saying, “There are man’s activities that can be contributed to the issues that we’re dealing with now … But it kind of doesn’t matter at this point, as we debate what caused it. The point is, it’s real, we need to do something about it.”

Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder says, “It’s still not clear if [Gov. Palin] thinks our emissions are warming the planet. She’s all over the place on this.” If he could ask her one question in tonight’s debate, it would be this: “Do you think human activity is causing global warming?” He’d follow with, “If you don’t know the cause of the problem, why should Americans trust your ticket’s solution?”

For those concerned about climate change, what caused it does matter. If human beings aren’t causing it, then what can they do to stop it? On that note, probing Palin about her thoughts on McCain’s plan to combat climate change would add an interesting element to tonight’s debate, as no one thus far has asked her to elaborate on the subject.

Enviros would also like to ask Palin what she would do as energy czar, since both she and McCain have said energy is a policy area where she would play a major role. She’s gotten herself in trouble already for exaggerating the role of Alaska in supplying the U.S. with energy, and the natural-gas pipeline she touts as a success only exists on paper. She’s also called for drilling both in offshore areas and in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but earlier this week she told Couric that we should be “weaning ourselves off the hydrocarbons.”

So another question for Palin would be, “How do we simultaneously increase our production of oil and pursue Sen. McCain’s goal of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions 60 percent by mid-century?”

And since she’s already got that big job of keeping an eye on Vladimir Putin, one could ask Palin about McCain’s nuclear power plan, and whether importing uranium from Russia to power the new nuclear plants he wants to build is a good energy-independence strategy.

In her time as governor of Alaska, Palin pushed through a big tax increase on oil companies, which brought in $6 billion to the state’s coffers during the most recent fiscal year. Palin used some of those funds to give each Alaskan $1,200 to help them deal with rising energy costs, which has been quite popular in the state (who doesn’t like getting a big check from the government?). This sounds an awful lot like Barack Obama’s proposal for a windfall-profits tax, which McCain opposes.

League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski wants to ask Palin about this. His proposed question: “On January 15, 2008, you proposed a windfall-profits tax on oil companies to give more money to Alaskans, and you used some of that money to invest in renewable energy. Barack Obama proposes a similar plan. John McCain opposes it. Will you support McCain’s energy plan or stand by a good policy?”

And of course, plenty of folks want to know what Palin has to say about aerial wolf hunting, and why she doesn’t think the polar bear should be listed as a threatened species.

Say It Ain’t So, Joe

Biden has served in the Senate for more than 35 years, so his views on environmental issues are fairly well established, but there are still a few questions folks would like to ask him.

After his muddled response to a question on “clean coal” a few weeks ago, one is left wondering what he really believes the federal government should be doing about coal. Does he still believe what he told Grist last year, that there isn’t “much of a role for clean coal in energy independence” in the U.S., but that we should develop and export the technology to China and other developing nations? Or is he more of the mindset of Barack Obama, who regularly touts the virtues of “clean coal” and says it could be an important domestic energy source?

Delaware enviros would like to see Biden asked about what he’s done in his home state on green issues. Alan Muller, executive director of Green Delaware, says that while Biden has had a good record nationally, he’s ignored requests from people back home to help clean up the state. Muller says if he got one question tonight for Biden, it would be: “What’s your record in Delaware? Delaware is a place with among the worst health statistics, highest cancer rates, high rates of infant mortality. What have you done to help clean up Delaware’s biggest polluters?”

Both sides now

There are questions enviros want to pose to both candidates. Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope wants to know what they think about coal mining, which would not be easy to make “clean.” If he were given a chance to ask a debate question, it would be this: “Should mining operators be permitted to destroy streams by dumping the waste, spoil, and tailings from their operations into them, or should mining companies, whether producing coal or gold, have to protect their downstream and downslope neighbors by keeping their waste material out of our waterways?”

A. Siegel, who blogs at Get Energy Smart Now and Energize Amerca, wants to know who advises the candidates in the area of energy. “Energy and environmental issues are extremely complicated and intertwined. We can all use advisors and people to learn from,” he says. So he would ask the candidates, “Can you tell us three people who you have turned to for advice or who you have learned from when it comes to energy issues, including why you value their thoughts and advice highly enough to mention them on national television?”

Siegel says he’d also like to hear their thoughts on public transit, noting that Biden is a vocal enthusiast of Amtrak and Palin lives in a state where snowmobiles are more common than buses.

David Sassoon, who blogs at SolveClimate, wants to know what the candidates think about oil-shale development, a controversial and polluting means of extracting oil from shale. The Bush administration has been trying to push forward on oil-shale development in Western states before Bush’s term ends.

It’s possible, even likely, that none of these specific issues will be addressed tonight, as there’s only one VP debate and a whole lot to cover — and debate moderators are known to give short shrift to the environment. But energy is a hot topic and it’s likely to arise in some form or another during the debate; it came up at last week’s presidential debate even though there was no direct question on the subject.

Chime in below in comments with the questions you’d like to see asked. Then tune in to the debate tonight and see for yourself how it shakes out — while you play Grist’s VP debate bingo.

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