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Why the silence on climate in the US presidential debates?

Trump and Clinton may have lots to say in the debates, but they aren’t saying much about climate. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

Why the silence on climate in the US presidential debates?

As scientists become more gloomy about keeping global warming below the allegedly “safe” limit of 2℃, the issue is disappearing from the US presidential debates. There was a brief mention in the second debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton debate, with climate change treated as an “afterthought”.

Trump has previously (in 2012) suggested that climate change “was created by and for the Chinese”. Clinton has put forward a detailed climate and energy plan.

Even former Vice President Al Gore joining Clinton on at a campaign rally in Florida didn’t particularly help.

So why has climate change gone AWOL?

Early days

It’s an odd phenomenon, because awareness of the threat of climate change goes back more than half a century, well before its sudden arrival on public policy agendas in 1988.

While John F. Kennedy (president 1961-63) had been aware of environmental problems generally (he’d read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring), it was his successor Lyndon Johnson (1963-69) who made the first presidential statement about climate change. The words were written for him by pioneering climate scientist Roger Revelle.

“Tricky” Dick Nixon (1969-74) received a warning on the topic from Democratic senator Daniel Moynihan in September 1969.

A Nixon bureaucrat replied:

The more I get into this, the more I find two classes of doom-sayers, with, of course, the silent majority in between… One group says we will turn into snow-tripping mastodons because of the atmospheric dust and the other says we will have to grow gills to survive the increased ocean level due to the temperature rise.

Nixon created the US Environmental Protection Authority in an age when conservatism meant conserving things, or at least paying lip service to the concept, but climate change was still a very niche concern.

Ronald Reagan’s (1981-89) hostility to all matters environmental is infamous, with attempts to abolish both the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, but with the credibility of atmospheric scientists high thanks to their discovery of the ozone hole, moves towards a climate agreement could not be completely resisted.

1988 and beyond

A combination of growing scientific alarm about the growth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and a long hot summer in 1988 made climate change an election issue. On the campaign trail, then-Vice President George H. W. Bush announced in his presidential compaign:

Those who think we’re powerless to do anything about the “greenhouse effect” are forgetting about the “White House effect”. As President, I intend to do something about it… In my first year in office, I will convene a global conference on the environment at the White House… We will talk about global warming… And we will act.

They didn’t get on with it, of course, with Bush, then president (1989-93), insisting that targets and timetables for emissions reductions were removed from the proposed climate treaty to be agreed at the Rio Earth Summit, before he would agree to attend. The targets were replaced, and with the younger Bill Clinton making climate an issue, Bush felt it sensible to go to the summit.

It was 2000 before presidential candidates debated the issue. George W. Bush (2000-09) said:

I think it’s an issue that we need to take very seriously. But I don’t think we know the solution to global warming yet. And I don’t think we’ve got all the facts before we make decisions. I tell you one thing I’m not going to do is I’m not going to let the United States carry the burden for cleaning up the world’s air. Like the Kyoto Treaty would have done. China and India were exempted from that treaty. I think we need to be more even-handed.

In 2004 Democrat candidate John Kerry landed a blow on Bush at a debate:

The Clear Skies bill that he just talked about, it’s one of those Orwellian names you pull out of the sky… Here they’re leaving the skies and the environment behind. If they just left the Clean Air Act all alone the way it is today, no change, the air would be cleaner than it is if you pass the Clear Skies act. We’re going backwards.

The peak year for climate concern was 2008, with climate rating a mention in all three presidential debates.

Obama framed climate change as an energy independence issue, arguing that:

…we’ve got to walk the walk and not just talk the talk when it comes to energy independence, because this is probably going to be just as vital for our economy and the pain that people are feeling at the pump – and you know, winter’s coming and home heating oil – as it is our national security and the issue of climate change that’s so important.

Despite a petition with 160,000 signatures, the debate moderators for the 2012 debate did not put the issue on the agenda.

The Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, was accused of recanting early climate change positions arguing:

My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO₂ emissions is not the right course for us.

As Governor of Massachusetts he had “spent considerable time hammering out a sweeping climate change plan to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions”.

Why the silence?

I would argue that there are two reasons for the silence in the debates. One is simply down to the politicisation around the issue. As shown above, as recently as 2008 Republican candidates could admit that climate change was happening.

In 2012 only one contender, Jon Huntsman, was willing to do so, and he soon dropped out, with his views dramatically unpopular among Republican voters.

What happened? In two words: Tea Party. The emergence of the hyper-conservative Tea Party Republican faction was the culmination of a longer-term trend of what two American academics call “anti-reflexivity”.

For example, Marco Rubio, from Florida – a state that is already being hit by climate impacts – cannot take a position on it.

The second reason is more gloomy, because it is more intractable. Those who have denied climate change for so very long will find it very costly – both politically and psychologically – to reverse their position and admit that they have been wrong. Climate change denial has become a cultural position, as academics like Andrew Hoffman have noted.

Meanwhile, the carbon dioxide accumulates, and the impacts pile up.