Climate Blackout

Why Climate Change Hardly Surfaced During the Presidential Campaign Season

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

If you have been following the presidential debates, as well as the Hixon Center’s Where Does Your Candidate Stand on the Environment? series, you might have noticed the glaring lack of discussion in the debates and in the mainstream media about climate change, as well as other environmental issues. The issue itself was covered for only a sad five minutes and twenty-three seconds over the total 270 minutes of all three presidential debates. Much of that came during the second presidential debate, when an audience member asked a question pertaining to energy policy. At no point did the debate moderators ask about the issue.

The issue of climate change has received particular international attention this year, largely due to the Paris Climate Agreement that will enter into force on November 4, 2016. Considering that the U.S. has formally entered into the agreement, the next President of the United States will be obligated to implement its terms.

Despite an international agreement that will change the course of climate action around the world, and especially considering the warnings that have been issued by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Pentagon, climate change was apparently still not pressing enough to earn status as a fundamental issue for discussion during the presidential, as well as vice presidential, debates.

Climate activist Naomi Klein sharing her outrage regarding lacking discussion about climate change in the presidential debates

Climate activist Naomi Klein sharing her outrage regarding lacking discussion about climate change in the presidential debates

The issues discussed during the presidential debates are intended to directly reflect the concerns of the American people. A Gallup poll from March 2016 showed that 64% of U.S. adults are worried “a great deal” or “a fair amount” about climate change, the highest percentage reported in eight years. And certainly, the issue of climate change was not completely absent throughout the election season. Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign unquestionably hit hardest on the issue, emphasizing the need for comprehensive environmental policy and climate action. And more recently, Secretary Hillary Clinton delivered a speech at a Florida rally in early October centered on the topic of climate change.

So why the climate blackout?

On surface level, climate change has been and continues to be an issue highly divided along partisan lines. According to a report by the Pew Research Center in 2015, “Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to consider it a very serious problem, believe its effects are being felt now, think it will harm them personally, and support U.S. participation in an international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions.” As I discussed in Part 3 of the ‘Candidate’ series, the Republican Party Platform that was released prior to the Republican National Convention even symbolizes a formal declaration on behalf of the party to deny climate change as a serious issue meriting policy action:

“Climate change is far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue. This is the triumph of extremism over common sense, and Congress must stop it.” (pg. 20)

“We will … forbid the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide, something never envisioned when Congress passed the Clean Air Act.” (pg. 21)

…the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution. Its unreliability is reflected in its intolerance toward scientists and others who dissent from its orthodoxy… [we] reject the agendas of both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement” (pg. 22)

“All international executive agreements and political arrangements entered into by the current Administration must be deemed null and void as mere expressions of the current president’s preferences.” (pg. 26)

Even though conservative minds across the country are now reflecting a different attitude and acknowledge that the climate is changing, the establishment’s disavowal of global agreements to address climate change and to dismiss one of the world’s largest acting scientific and government bodies on the issue was clearly reflected in the structure of the debates. The party itself refuses wholesale to acknowledge the importance of climate change, which may discourage debate moderators from bringing it up at all. After all, why bring it up if they don’t care?

It’s the thought that counts.

However, highly partisan views don’t adequately explain why the issue isn’t brought up. The candidates and their respective parties are about as divided as they have ever been, and yet there are plenty of other issues marked by stark contrast of conservative and liberal perspectives that still are regularly debated. Climate change is certainly a wedge issue with which parties could earn votes, even if it’s not the most urgent issue for voters. It’s clear enough as well through a number of polls that people think that climate change is an issue worth addressing.

But perhaps it has nothing to do with partisanship, and perhaps it doesn’t matter if people recognize the seriousness of climate change at all. Instead, it seems like people just don’t think about it.

The polls above indicate that people do care about climate change, but look at the questions those polls ask. In each question, climate change is explicitly brought up: from the very outset climate change is the matter at hand. If you ask someone about climate change directly, it’s likely they will say they care.

But what if you ask people just to list which issues matter to them? It’s a similar question, but with surprisingly different results. In George Marshall’s (Founder, Climate Outreach) Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change,” (2014) he shares exactly what happens when the question changes:

For the past twenty-five years, the Gallup organization has asked people how much they “personally worry” about a variety of environmental issues. There has never been much interest in climate change; worry levels have always wobbled between “only a little” and “a fair amount,” below both river and air pollution.

This is what opinion polls find when they ask people, upfront, how much they worry about climate change. About half of Americans know that when a pollster asks the question “How worried are you about global warming?”, the appropriate response is to indicate some worry. However, when they are not prompted to give an answer, they scarcely mention it at all. Every year since 2001 the Pew Research Center has asked people to choose the policy issue that should be a high priority for the president. “Dealing with global warming” has never risen above the bottom slot and is probably only there at all because it was included in the list of options.” (pg. 79)

As a result, it hardly enters conversation:

When pressed two thirds of people admit that they rarely or never talk about it, even inside the close circle of their friends and family members.” (pg. 81)

So, when the United Nations issued a public, global poll in 2015 asking what mattered most to individuals around the world, Marshall’s point was very clearly illustrated:

United Nations Survey results indicating which issues individuals cared about most.

United Nations Survey results indicating which issues individuals cared about most.

Marshall’s take-home point is in the title: our brains are not wired to think about climate change. It seems blunt, but he offers a few distinct reasons why, and with profound evidence:

  • Climate change “does not feel threatening,” – humans are more perceptive to imminent and obvious threats (pg. 54)
    • Relatedly, climate change is “abstract, distant, invisible, and disputed.” (pg. 57)
  • The framing of climate change as a “long-term issue and a threat to future generations.” (pg. 59)
    • Relatedly, “people give an overwhelming priority to the short term over the long term… they discount the future,” and as a result, “people will be strongly disposed to avoid short-term falls in their living standard and to take their chances on the uncertain but potentially far higher costs that might come in the longer term.” (pg. 66)
  • Climate science is discussed in scientific reports in levels of certainty, not definitively.
    • So, “when scientists say uncertain, the public hears unsure, and considers them less reliable or trustworthy.” (pg. 73)

There are a number of other explanations that Marshall and other scholars offer, but many of us can relate: the threat of climate change is not always so visible or posing, so we are less likely to think about it as compared to terrorism, civil rights, and other more frequently discussed issues. It does not feel as personal and imminent, and only when called upon to discuss it, do we often realize that it is deeply concerning.

This is highly salient in conversations surrounding environmental or climate justice. The aforementioned Pew Research Center survey also showed that individuals in the highest emitting countries are not as intensely concerned about climate change as those elsewhere, and simultaneously that there is strong sentiment that wealthier countries should do more than developing nations to address climate change because “they have produced most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions so far.” And often times, as a number of studies indicate, it is the less wealthy who disproportionately deal with the negative impacts of a changing climate and resource availability.

Faith and religion, as well binary conceptions of “nature” and “society,” play a large role as well – not just in hindering our sense of urgency about climate change as Americans, but also in convincing many individuals and communities that climate change is not an issue at all. As it pertains to faith, academics such as Professor Michael Ranney of UC Berkeley have performed survey studies which indicate a positive correlation between those who do not believe in evolution and those who do not believe in climate change. Relatedly, we can look to a lengthy environmental history in the U.S., during which the natural environment has often been seen as a separate entity and has either been perceived as dangerous or a force that could be conquered (see: William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness” and Noel Castree’s “Making Sense of Nature”). With that said, for some, climate science may simply not concern them, and for others there may be passive belief that we can overcome and adapt to the consequences of climate change. This becomes more apparent when we contrast the U.S. with many European nations that are particularly active on climate change, but may have more secular populations.

Coupling all of that with our status as one of the leading emitters of greenhouse gases and our general mental disposition against having climate change on our minds, it becomes less of a surprise that media and political coverage on the issue is minimal. If constituents aren’t openly concerned about the issue, our representatives won’t think to address it seriously. If an issue does not come with the sensationalism that we directly associate with most of the major news networks, it will not get coverage. In tandem, for our politicians vying for the nation’s highest offices, it is thus not an issue that will win you an election.

When all is said and done, what are we left with? Five and a half minutes of passive discussion between presidential candidates – one of whom will shape the direction of our country over the next four, potentially eight, years.

How do we address the issue?

It is easy to lament the climate blackout that we have experienced over the last several months, and even more so to feel hopeless in the face of a problem as wicked as climate change. Some of the world’s leading scholars on decision making and psychology share similar sentiments. Professor Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize recipient and author of the bestselling book, “Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow,” expressed in Marshall’s book that he too was “deeply pessimistic,” and that he saw “no path to success on climate change.” He argues that the issue is simply not salient enough, that people will not accept short-term reductions to their quality of living, and that the issue is too commonly perceived as uncertain and contested for people to rally around it (pgs. 56-57). As someone with an academic background in environmental policy and management, I have sometimes felt the same, admittedly.

The issue is indeed daunting, but there are now many examples of action being taken around the world from which to find inspiration. The European Union has a reputation for highly progressive environmental policy, and the Paris Agreement is a powerful testament to the will of both developing and developed nations to act on climate change. However, if we expect our own politicians and government to seriously address the issue at all, especially in mainstream dialogue and debate, we must do the same. For the issue to become relevant, we cannot stop talking about it.

The Claremont Colleges offer a variety of opportunities for students to engage in environmental sustainability – from student groups to environmental internships to academic programs. Through those opportunities, a plethora of venues exist for highly engaging discussions. Seek those opportunities out, and find ways to turn discussions with your peers into open forums with which students, faculty, and staff can engage.

Beyond the campus, exercising your abilities as a resident to voice your concerns with government representatives on local, state, and national levels is a potent way to open up dialogue – not just between you and your representatives, but amongst government officials. Getting involved in grassroots campaigns that are committed to opening up dialogues and creating tangible change is another effective and highly valuable opportunity with which to continue, promote, and escalate discussion about climate change and other environmental issues.

Lastly, using social media effectively to address environmental issues can stir widespread discussion. It may seem superficial at first, but hashtags have gone and can go a long way towards drawing the world’s eye to, and opening the world’s mouths about, climate change.

With that said, don’t just think about it. Talk about it – with passion and frequency – and others just might begin to do the same.