Climate Change in the Presidential Debates

This year’s campaign for President of the United States has been extraordinary, unprecedented, bizarre—choose your  favorite term. There has been far too little discussion of substantive policy matters. Instead, Hillary Clinton’s emails and Donald Trump’s offensive behavior toward women have received the lion’s share of attention.

Notably, amazingly, incredibly—again, choose your  favorite word—the various moderators did not ask a single question about climate change during this year’s three presidential and one vice presidential debate, lasting five hours in all. One audience member at the final debate asked about energy policy, which is related but not identical. To her credit, Hillary Clinton mentioned climate change on several occasions, but that was the sum total of attention to the issue. Worse yet, in the debates for the 2012 presiden­tial campaign the candidates made absolutely no mention of climate change at all. Zero.

We should remember that it’s not as if the future of humanity on this planet is threatened. Oh, wait; yes it is. So it is truly a shame that the moderators asked zero questions about climate change.

There are many reasons why discussing climate change intelligently is difficult, as readers of this blog know. Add to those the growing view of the public that politics is largely an appropriate occasion for insults, braggadocio, or entertainment. The book called Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change seems apposite. A significant segment of the electorate believes that climate change is a hoax, as Donald, Trump has claimed, or at best is not an urgent problem. Only 15% of Trump supporters care “a great deal” about climate change, compared to 56% of Clinton supporters.

Who is it that for decades has been telling Americans that climate change is a major problem? You might think of Al Gore, NASA scientist James Hansen, and President Obama and observe that the federal government often has been the bearer of this bad news, the “inconvenient truth” about climate, as Gore called it. Now look at the graph below showing how trust in government has eroded among both Democrats and Republicans during the past 57 years. (An informative discussion of this erosion of trust by Michael Svoboda can be found here.) It seems probable that many people are paying insufficient attention to the climate change message because they do not trust the messenger.


If you had been a moderator for one of the debates how would you have framed a question about climate change? Knowing that political candidates find ways to be evasive in their answers to questions they don’t want to address directly (with respect to climate change I am thinking mainly of Trump), you might have wanted to frame your question in an unusual way.

Perhaps it would have been useful to pose a climate change question in terms of national security. For many years, starting even before Barack Obama became President, the Pentagon has identified climate change as a serious threat to national security, because changes in the climate create more refugees, greater competition for resources (including food), threats to naval harbors for American vessels as oceans rise, and increased potential for armed international conflict. A Pentagon report published last year concluded, “the Defense Department already is observing the impacts of climate change in shocks and stressors to vulnerable nations and communities, including in the United States, the Arctic, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America.” Donald Trump might have replied to such a question by saying that he knows more than the generals do about climate change—but if he had, then at least he would have been clearly on the record and not able to deny he said so.

Today, less than a week before the election, the odds are high that Hillary Clinton will be elected President. The Senate may also flip from Republican to Democratic, but the House is likely to remain Republican. The first two would be good outcomes for people concerned about climate change, but a Republican House could mean more years of gridlock. The outcome of the election could be even better if there could then be a productive conversation among and between elected politicians and the public about the threat of climate change.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section.)


One thought on “Climate Change in the Presidential Debates

  1. To declining trust in government, I would add several other trends that seem to speak so loudly about the silence we are witnessing in the public sphere about climate change. Trust in science and scientists is not high these days, and I would guess that reflects a downward trend of sorts. Mistrust of media and what many would regard as “trusted news sources” helps to contribute to a public discourse in which even the most basic, indisputable “facts” are disputed or ignored. And finally self-interest is clearly at work, as parties who perceive themselves on the “losing” end of climate improvement actions vigorously oppose such moves—witness the coal industry’s response, if not that of most fossil fuel industries. It will definitely cost them more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than to turn a blind eye. What appears to be climate change denial is often self-interest in the clothing of climate change skepticism.

    None of these three explains particularly well the moderators’ failure to pose climate-related questions in the recent debates, unless of course one presumes that the news outlets are watching their sponsors and bottom lines, and have been quietly told to steer clear of anything that might implicate energy companies. We can only hope that the outcome of the election will provide a better platform for engaging the issues and conversation more publicly and over a long period of years. Be sure to vote next Tuesday!

    –Mike Knapp


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s