Posted by: ericgrimsrud | October 23, 2016

Why was climate change ignored in the Presidential debates?

This week, we listened to the last of three presidential debates. In them, I had expected to hear some questions concerning the most important issue of our times. That, of course, is the global warming being caused by mankind’s emissions of greenhouse gases and especially the emissions of carbon dioxide by the combustion of fossil fuels. The citizens of our country had every right to expect such questions. In upcoming years we are going to be hit like a ton of bricks by the relentless advance of warming. Since we are generally considered to be a leader of the free world, all citizens of the world would have a keen interest in our future President’s views on this topic. Four examples of questions we might have expected to hear in those debates are the following:

“An overwhelming majority of climate scientists say that climate change is real, caused by humans and constitutes a growing threat to our way of life. All of the top 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1998 – the year when the deniers say that warming stopped. If elected President, what would you do to address this problem?”

“The Pentagon has said that climate change is a national security risk due to the destruction caused by rising seas and displacement of people. Millions of people will become “climate refugees” as crops fail and drinking water supplies are contaminated by seawater. What would you do to prepare the USA for this?”

“Rising sea levels are already causing whole cities to be put at great risk within the next few decades. What plan will you put in place to ensure that areas such as New York and Florida aren’t inundated?”

“Addressing global climate change requires international participation and cooperation. What efforts would you make as President of the USA to ensure that an effective level of international cooperation does occur?”

But now consider the fact that not a single question of this sort was asked in any of the three Presidential debates. Nor was one asked in the Vice Presidential debate. Thus, the American public was denied the latest thoughts of our candidates on this most important issue. Given this, another question must be asked: “why were such questions not included?” Since no explanations have been provided by the debate moderators, we are left to our own guesses. Four of mine are provided below.

Corporate domination: The fossil fuel corporations provide both of our political parties with vast amounts of financial support. Those same corporations would undoubtedly prefer that open discussions of the role of fossil fuels in causing climate change not be held in front of the enormous audience viewing the Presidential debates. Staying below the radar is a good strategy when one knows one is involved in questionable activities. So perhaps the enormous financial leverage the corporate world has over both our political parties and our media was sufficient to silence all questions concerning climate change.

Cowardice of the candidates: It is also possible that both candidates, Clinton as well as Trump, preferred not to remind voters of their stances in this issue. In the case of Trump, who has said on numerous occasions that he believes man-caused global warming in largely a hoax, he would have to say the same if asked in a debate. In doing so, he would lose a lot of votes among political independents who are scientifically literate. If Hillary were asked such questions, she would have to honor her previous commitments made in her run against Bernie Sanders to forcefully address the problem. And if pressed further, she would then have to get into the details of what must be done – that is, how we would significantly cut back on our use of all fossil fuels. While a large fraction of the US public believes climate change is occurring, a distinctly smaller fraction is willing to suffer some of the sacrifices that will be required in order to do something about it. Rather than lose those votes, I suspect that Clinton would prefer not the be asked about specific plans for cutting greenhouse gases. In other words, on the subject of climate change, it is difficult to pander to the audience by offering painless, easy solutions and both candidates seek issues in which they can effectively pander to large and receptive portions of the electorate.

Scientific ignorance of the media: When the Commission on Presidential Debates Executive Director Janet Brown was asked why the subject of climate change was not included in the debates, she said. “The commission leaves the editorial discretion to moderators for both the selection of topics and questions,” and added “there are dozens of issues that unfortunately don’t fit into the time allotted for the four debates.” Really, are there actually “dozens of issues” as important as climate change? And really, does the media not know how to fit this topic into the “time allotted”? Clearly our schools of journalism and public media need to include more environmental science in their curricula. Either that or the media should hire more people who are scientifically literate.

My hope for days ahead: If any significant action on climate change is to occur during the next Presidential term, it is now apparent that Clinton must defeat Trump in the upcoming election and after that her attitude concerning climate change must quickly swing to that of Bernie Sanders. Bernie was the only candidate in the primaries who really “got it” and hopefully he has subsequently taught Hillary what must be done for the sake of future generations including her own grandchildren.


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