What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Climate Change

What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Climate Change

What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Climate Change

Years from now, historians will marvel at the absence of global warming in the 2016 campaign coverage and presidential debates.


August 2016 was the hottest month in recorded history. Nothing new there. As a recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies, “Combat vs. Climate,” explains, 15 of the 16 hottest years ever recorded have been in the 21st century. Official Pentagon planning documents recognize climate change as “an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water.” And yet the 2016 Republican Party platform simply dismisses it. None of the moderators at the presidential or vice-presidential debates in 2012 deemed the topic worthy of even a single question, and none have done so this year either.

When Donald Trump isn’t musing on grabbing lady parts or bragging about what a bodacious babe his young daughter was, he sometimes spouts his belief that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” You may have heard about that because, unbidden by the moderators, Hillary Clinton brought up Trump’s crazy tweet in the first presidential debate. True to form, he denied it, though it was seen by millions of people before and after the debate. Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway got all postmodern regarding his loony notion while spinning on CNN: She explained that Trump simply meant he believes that “global warming is naturally occurring”—that is, independent of human activity.

While this position may appear marginally less lunatic than Trump’s true beliefs—if such things can be said to exist—scientific support for it remains no less rare. Disbelief in the human role in global warming among qualified climatologists has fallen into “margin of error” territory—that is, between 1 and 3 percent. And yet, according to a recent Pew poll, roughly three-quarters of Republicans still think the whole idea is really some sort of conspiracy. Just 15 percent are willing to accept that there’s a scientific consensus on the issue. All told, according to Pew, barely a third of Americans say they “care a great deal” about climate change.

As the IPS report points out, the United States spends 28 times as much on traditional military security as on climate security. And so, as we spend tens of billions of dollars for weapons that won’t work for wars we will never fight, we have all but disarmed ourselves in the face of a future that will likely see a devastating loss of arable land, taking our food supply with it. We can look forward to increasingly frequent hurricanes and a rise in sea levels that will threaten all the world’s coastal cities. The Pentagon’s planning reports have been warning since 2008 that a warming world will provoke a massive increase in the flow of refugees, violent conflicts over depleted natural resources (especially water), and a sharp spike in energy prices.

The news media don’t deserve all the blame for Americans’ ignorance and corresponding lack of alarm. Almost all political systems display a natural inertia when confronting a not-yet-visible catastrophe, and every modern president, for better or worse, has had to grapple with Americans’ distaste for any form of sacrifice or even collective action for anything short of military attack.

In this case, we must recognize the enemy within. Barack Obama has been admirably alarmist about the problem. Hillary Clinton has been less so, but she’s still on the right side of the issue. Alas, the Republican Party’s remarkable combination of purposeful ignorance and obstinacy has stymied congressional action for over a generation. Twice, the Republican House majority attached an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that explicitly denied the Pentagon the right to address climate threats. Last year, the House Budget Committee actually tried to pass a measure that would have prevented the Pentagon and the CIA from even studying climate science. Trump may position himself as an outsider candidate whose wealth insulates him from corrupt interest groups, but the fossil-fuel lobbyists he’s picked to shape his energy policy would guarantee more of the same.

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that the GOP’s billionaire backers—Charles and David Koch most prominently—have dedicated themselves to building an iron wall against any form of regulatory action that could eat into their profits. In the past, the Kochs have used middlemen and secretive organizations to impose their political and intellectual blackmail on Republicans (and therefore on the rest of us). Recognizing that Trump is unelectable, they’re now using their network to endorse and fund House and Senate candidates as a way to ensure that President Clinton will have no better luck defending America in this area than Obama did.

Sadly, many in the media have simply played along by ignoring the issue as well. To be fair, this is true of almost all genuine issues. Using a particularly generous yardstick, Harvard’s Shorenstein Center found that during the first five months of this year, 56 percent of election coverage was devoted exclusively to the horse race. A mere 11 percent focused on “substantive concerns,” with immigration, terrorism, and other fear-driven issues dominating the coverage. News organizations, particularly the cable stations, enjoyed record profits during this period as they repeated and amplified the lies, exaggerations, and invective upon which Republicans, led by Trump, based their campaigns. Now they’re being held responsible for failing to notice that the GOP presidential nominee is a sexist pig who thinks it’s OK to grab women’s private parts and agrees that his own daughter is a “piece of ass.” Critics point out that the evidence of Trump’s psychopathology was there for all to see; it merely took a salacious tape and a white American victim to get people to notice.

Disgusting as Trump’s views about women may be, they will pale in the eyes of future historians struggling to understand America’s failure to stop the slow-motion destruction of our planet.

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