Donald Trump says he wants to "save the coal industry." That would be disastrous for the climate, writes John Sutter.

Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and email. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

CNN  — 

Lester Holt, the NBC anchor, hinted this week at the issues he plans to ask about during Monday night’s presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. There are only three: “America’s Direction,” “securing America” and “achieving prosperity.”

Setting aside how hazardously vague these topics are (each sounds like it’s ready to be stamped on a red Trump hat), there is a resounding upside here: Each provides an opportunity for Holt to ask about climate change.

This is likely to be the hottest year on record. Deadly floods in Louisiana have been linked directly to human-caused warming. Drought in India is pushing farmers to commit suicide. An indigenous village in Alaska is melting and this summer voted to relocate. Our fingerprints are on these disasters like never before in history.

Yet climate is the most important issue almost no one is talking about this campaign season. Holt owes it to future generations to change that. He should press both candidates, but especially Trump, who scoffs at climate science, on how they’ll abandon fossil fuels this century.

That’s what scientists say is needed to avoid the most catastrophic elements of climate change, like rising seas that will drown cities like Miami and Hong Kong. Some effects – the disappearance of most coral reefs, for instance – now seem nearly inevitable.

Pandering to the coal industry – and bickering over solid science – should be left well in the past.

The discussion now must be about how to shift off of fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

The candidates, not surprisingly, are like summer and winter on this issue. Clinton says she will work to meet the terms of the Paris Agreement, in which 195 countries agreed to limit warming to at most 2 degrees Celsius. On his campaign website, Trump says he would “cancel” that deal, which has been decades in the making and is very close to becoming international law.

Clinton acknowledges the reality of climate science, which says unequivocally that humans are causing warming by burning fossil fuels, primarily for power and heat, and chopping down rainforests. Trump, meanwhile, “joked” in 2012 that China created global warming “in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” “A lot of it’s a hoax, it’s a hoax,” Trump said of climate science in January. “I mean, it’s a money-making industry, OK?”

There’s no doubt Trump sides with the moneyed interests of the fossil fuels industry.

“Oh you will like me so much,” Trump told an oil and gas conference in Pennsylvania on Thursday. “All of the workers that are being put to work, they are going to love Donald Trump.”

There is, of course, the likelihood that Trump, again, will try to make a joke of climate change if asked about it during Monday’s presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York. He’s already said he doesn’t want Holt to fact-check the debate. Still, the NBC moderator would be wise to attempt to force Trump to explain his dangerous, anti-fact rhetoric – and in doing so he should remind the American people there is no scientific discord here.

Trump’s instance that climate change is “a hoax” is as much a lie as his false birther claims about President Obama. Holt also could remind Americans that climate change can be fixed – and that fixing it also means fewer dirty-air deaths, cleaner cities and more-sustainable jobs.

I recently listened to a panel discussion on this topic at the University of Oregon.

“We have the technologies at hand, and even improved technologies close within reach that would allow us to decarbonize the world’s energy system over the period of a few decades,” the economist Jeffrey Sachs told the audience. “And we can do that at quite low cost.” Doing so, he said, would take only 1% of national income per year between now and 2050. “This is a huge bargain, given the dangers we would hereby avert by choosing this path,” Sachs said.

Young people understand this best. They can’t vote, yet they will be the ones living farthest into the climate-changed future.

I recently met most of the 21 plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit over the government’s insufficient action on climate change. They claim on constitutional grounds that inaction on climate is depriving them of their rights to life, liberty and property.

I was saddened by how much these kids have to worry about climate change. “It’s hard to think about anything else when you have this massive, overarching problem,” said Aji Piper, 16. “It gives me nightmares,” said Levi Draheim, a 9-year-old who lives in coastal Florida, which he fears will flood. “Sometimes I catch myself waking up and (I’m) just screaming.”

Holt, and other moderators, need to realize our sins are falling on their shoulders.

We adults must speak on their behalf.

“America’s direction,” “securing America,” “achieving prosperity.”

In 2016, you can’t discuss any of these responsibly without addressing climate change.