Our two major political parties are at odds on many issues, but nowhere is the gap bigger or more consequential than on climate.
If Hillary Clinton wins, she will move forward with the Obama administration’s combination of domestic clean-energy policies and international negotiation – a one-two punch that offers some hope of reining in greenhouse gas emissions before climate change turns into climate catastrophe.
If Donald Trump wins, the paranoid style in climate politics – the belief that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by a vast international conspiracy of scientists – will become official doctrine, and catastrophe will become all but inevitable.
So why does the media seem so determined to ignore this issue? Why, in particular, does it almost seem as if there’s a rule against bringing it up in debates?
Before I get there, a brief summary of the policy divide.
It’s strange how little credit the Obama administration gets for its environmental policies.
Everyone has heard about how loan guarantees to one solar-energy company, Solyndra, went sour – at a cost, by the way, that amounted to only a bit more than half the amount Trump personally lost in just one year thanks to bad business decisions. Few people, by contrast, have heard about the green energy revolution that the administration’s loans and other policy support helped promote, with plunging prices and soaring consumption of solar and wind power.
Nor have many heard about the administration’s tightening of fuel efficiency standards, especially for trucks and buses, which in itself is one of the most significant environmental moves in decades.
And if Clinton wins, it’s more or less certain that the biggest moves yet – the Clean Power Plan, which would regulate emissions from power plants, and the Paris climate agreement, which commits all of the world’s major economies to make significant emission cuts – will become reality.
Meanwhile, there’s Trump, who has repeatedly called climate change a hoax and has suggested that it was invented by China to hurt U.S. competitiveness. I wish I could say that this puts him outside the mainstream of his party, but it doesn’t.
So there is a huge, incredibly consequential divide on climate policy. Not only is there a vast gap between the parties and their candidates, but this gap arguably matters more for the future than any of their other disagreements. So why don’t we hear more about it?
I’m not saying that there has been no reporting on the partisan climate divide, but there has been nothing like, say, the drumbeat of stories about Clinton’s email server. And it’s really stunning that in the three nationally televised forums we’ve had so far – the “commander-in-chief” forum involving Clinton and Trump, the first presidential debate and the vice-presidential debate – the moderators have asked not a single question about climate.
This was especially striking in Tuesday’s debate.
Somehow Elaine Quijano, the moderator, found time for not one but two questions inspired by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget – an organization concerned that despite relatively low budget deficits now and extremely low borrowing costs, the federal government may face fiscal problems a couple of decades down the line. There may be something to this, although not as much as deficit scolds claim (and Quijano managed to suggest that Clinton’s proposals, which are fully paid for, are no better than Trump’s multitrillion-dollar debt blowout).
But if we’re worried about the longer-term implications of current policies, the buildup of greenhouse gases is a much bigger deal than the accumulation of low-interest debt. It’s bizarre to talk about the latter but not the former.
And this blind spot matters a lot. Polling suggests that millennial voters, in particular, care a lot about environmental protection and renewable energy. But it also suggests that more than 40 percent of young voters believe that there is no difference between the candidates on these issues.
Yes, I know, people should be paying more attention – but this nonetheless tells us how easy it is for voters who rely on TV news or don’t read stories deep inside the paper to miss what should be a central issue in this campaign.
The good news is that there are still two debates to go, offering the opportunity to make some amends.
It’s time to end the blackout on climate change as an issue. It needs to be front and center – and questions must be accompanied by real-time fact-checking, not relegated to the limbo of he-said-she-said, because this is one of the issues where the truth often gets lost in a blizzard of lies.
There is, quite simply, no other issue this important, and letting it slide would be almost criminally irresponsible.