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The unthinkably high stakes for climate change that we’ve completely ignored this election

The next president will make decisions that will echo for centuries.

clinton and gore
“My lead in Florida is this big ...”
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

This election season has been unusual in a variety of ways. In one way, however, it’s been entirely normal, just like previous elections.

To wit: Climate change didn’t come up.

This fact barely needs explaining. It is pretty much what you’d expect, given various features of US politics and human psychology (which I get into below).

It is, nonetheless, worth taking a step back and reflecting on how batshit crazy it is.

The stakes involved are almost unthinkably large. We can say, without hyperbole, that the effects of this election will be felt centuries from now. The potential suffering of millions of people is on the line.

And a woman who has promised to see half a billion rooftop solar panels installed by the end of her first term is running against a man who believes climate change is a Chinese hoax.

Yet not a single moderator asked a single climate-related question in the three presidential debates. The media has been consumed with the email pseudo-scandal and the unending torrent of norm-destroying statements and behaviors from Trump.

All that stuff is sexy, and climate change isn’t. But let’s at least pause to contemplate the potential climate consequences of the election.

climate spiral gif (Ed Hawkins)

Stakes is high

In Paris, the countries of the world again came together to proclaim the moral necessity of limiting global average temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

Unlike previous climate agreements, however, the Paris agreement — which went into effect last week — involved tangible, concrete policy pledges from every participating country. Much of the momentum behind the agreement came from the joint participation of the US and China, the world’s two biggest carbon emitters.

That partnership in turn owed much to Obama’s willingness to offer a specific emissions target (26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025) and pass real policies — on fuel efficiency, pollution reduction, and clean energy deployment — behind it.

Will the next president continue Obama’s efforts to reduce carbon and fortify the international effort to confront climate change? The candidates have made themselves very clear on this.

Hillary Clinton says climate change is "one of the defining challenges of the 21st century." She has a detailed plan to protect and extend Obama’s policies, but she recognizes that there’s still a gap between those policies and the stated target, so she will take a suite of additional actions, including using tax reform to fund a program that rewards local and state governments that exceed federal standards (on, e.g., fuel economy or clean electricity).

Donald Trump, on the other hand, has said that:

He’s asked climate denier Myron Ebell to head his EPA transition. He put dirty-energy lobbyist Mike McKenna in charge of the Energy Department transition, just one in the parade of industry lobbyists he’s put in charge of his energy and environment team.

The analysts at Lux Research attempted to model the emissions difference between a Clinton and Trump presidency (to the extent such a thing is possible). Here’s their graph:

difference between trump & clinton presidency, emissions
Trump is the yellow dotted line of doom.
(Lux Research)

Trump is devoted to fossil fuels, leading a party devoted to fossil fuels. Under unified Republican governance, the US would blow its Paris targets and effectively end its participation in the international effort to combat climate change.

With US emissions unrestrained, other countries would rethink their participation in international emissions control efforts. The entire Paris edifice could come crumbling down.

Or it could stumble on. If nothing else, a post-Trump world would be unpredictable. But experts say that we only have a few short years left before hitting our purported climate targets becomes impossible. Throwing a wrench into the works now — and Trump is the world’s biggest wrench — would be a uniquely damaging bit of timing.

climate targets
Time, running out.
(CarbonBrief)

Remember, carbon dioxide we put in the atmosphere today stays there for 10,000 years. A recent commentary in the journal Nature put it this way:

Policy decisions made during [coming years] are likely to result in changes to Earth's climate system measured in millennia rather than human lifespans, with associated socioeconomic and ecological impacts that will exacerbate the risks and damages to society and ecosystems that are projected for the twenty-first century and propagate into the future for many thousands of years.

Many thousands of years. Hundreds of generations of human life. Those are the stakes. That’s why the climate scientists at Real Climate, to say nothing of this list of 375 scientists (including 20 Nobel winners), have desperately raised red flags about Trump. Even the Chinese government has taken the extraordinary step of criticizing Trump’s position.

Much of Obama’s progress on clean energy could be undone

The Paris pledges are not enough. Even if every country follows through on its pledge — and much depends on demographic and economic circumstance — the world is still on track for 2.9 to 3.4 degrees of warming this century. The bulk of the work remains to be done.

But it’s a start.

obama solar
A start.
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The problem is, momentum is more fragile than supporters like to emit. A great deal of weight has been placed on America’s example, but America’s progress is still somewhat brittle.

After the stimulus bill, virtually all of Obama’s progress on carbon has been through executive actions. Those actions are far more varied and ambitious than popularly understood, from research to clean-energy startup loans to fuel economy and efficiency standards to a range of new EPA regulations, including the Clean Power Plan. It has added up to a substantial legacy.

But it all, as it were, serves at the pleasure of the president. It’s been done by the president and could be undone, at least in part, by the next one.

Support for climate legislation from a Republican-controlled House in coming years is extremely unlikely, so the only real choice the next president faces on climate will be to protect and extend Obama’s climate legacy … or work to thwart it.

Either is possible. And the difference, for the US, the world, and future generations, could not be more fateful.

Why climate change is such an elephant in the room

Despite the unthinkably large consequences of the next president’s choices, the topic of climate change has been almost entirely absent from the presidential campaign.

Through spokesperson Tyrone Gayle, Hillary Clinton’s campaign says she has consistently tried to raise the issue, but "in spite of her best efforts, there has not been nearly enough debate about an issue that threatens our national security, our health, and our economy." (The Trump campaign did not respond to request for comment.)

In addition to all her plans and white papers, Clinton has mentioned the issue in numerous speeches and events — she focused on it when she campaigned with Al Gore in Florida — but there’s been virtually no press pick-up.

The story of her "gaffe" about coal miners is instructive. At a town hall in Ohio, she said, in the process of answering a question about assistance for coal mining communities, "we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business." It was infelicitous phrasing, no doubt.

But the media put it on loop for weeks. Very few reports mentioned that Clinton has a $30 billion plan to help coal communities. To my knowledge, not a single one broached the subject of why Clinton might want to reduce coal combustion and whether, given the circumstances, that’s a good idea.

Similarly, nobody in the press pushed Trump to explain how he would bring back all the coal jobs (spoiler: he can’t) or what increased coal emissions might do to the atmosphere. To my knowledge, he’s never been seriously pushed or challenged to explain how the Chinese created a climate hoax, or why they would go to the trouble.

Climate change was the elephant in the room, again. The whole politico-media complex just paraded by it as though it weren’t there.

dr elephant
What elephant?
(Shutterstock)

Viewed from the perspective of how much is at stake, this seems clinically insane.

But in fact, the absence of climate from the election was entirely predictable, indeed overdetermined, as the result of multiple overlapping dysfunctions and impediments. Let’s run through a few of them, moving from those specific to our current time and place to those that are more rooted in human nature.

1) This election has been a psychodrama almost entirely focused on the person of Donald J. Trump, a narcissistic, bullying, desperately insecure manchild who has channeled the deep undercurrent of white demographic panic in the country. Much is at risk: the economy, trade, NATO, press freedom, democratic governance, decency, and the ideals of the West, for starters. In that circumstance, it’s hard to get people focused on future generations.

2) Policy in general has gotten short shrift from media this cycle. As Vox's Matt Yglesias noted in his piece on Clinton’s emails, the nightly network newscasts have devoted more time to those emails than to all policy issues combined.

To the extent the media has distinguished itself this cycle, it is in digging through Trump’s voluminous and almost entirely unvetted record. Covering him on policy in the face of his incoherence and shifting stances is psychologically strenuous, as several Vox writers can attest. It sometimes seems like applying conventional epistemological criteria like "accuracy" to his word strings is a category error.

3) In American politics, climate change is a low salience, highly polarized issue. It is low salience in that very few voters rank it among their top concerns; most rank it toward the bottom. It his highly polarized — one of the most polarized issues in US politics, for well over a decade now — in that the people who care about it most are committed partisans on one side or the other.

To even have a coherent debate on an issue requires a shared set of facts. But there are no shared facts on climate. Unlike any other major political party in the developed world, the GOP simply denies that climate change is real.

That makes it impossible to have a debate on climate policy. In the vast majority of cases, a question to a Republican will simply elicit a bunch of denialist talking points and, if there’s a follow-up, a tedious back-and-forth about "the science." From the point-of-view of public responsibility, journalists probably ought to press this, but it’s unpleasant for everyone concerned and makes for bad TV and low clicks.

So the Republican Party’s calculated insanity on climate change — dodging, denying, polarizing — has paid off, not only in delaying action but in muting the issue. There can be no serious discussion of climate policy if one party refuses to acknowledge the reality of the problem. So most serious discussions of climate policy take place within the Democratic Party, or between the Obama administration and the public.

None of this makes for a good campaign story.

4) Most people are terrible at risk assessment. The AP asked 21 risk experts to rank the top five threats facing the US. Climate change led most of their lists. Notably, however, none of the other highly ranked alternatives — "nuclear weapons, pandemics, cyberattacks, and problems with high technology" — have been discussed much in the presidential campaign either.

Human beings judge risk based on personal experience and the priorities of others in their tribes, not objective metrics.

5) Climate change is a poor fit for human psychology and moral sentiment. It’s easy enough to learn facts about it. What’s hard is taking those facts to heart, really feeling them. They are abstract, intangible, and probabilistic, which makes them poor generators of outrage.

Pushing people to fear climate change (as they should!) can backfire. Neil Strauss had a great piece about fear in Rolling Stone a couple months ago.


One of the points he makes is that when people feel anxiety, it’s usually because they feel like victims of outside forces. Above all, they crave a sense of control. They seek out reassurance, simple stories that affirm their significance, identify a clear external threat, and promise a return to greatness.

Fear narrows the lens, morally and epistemologically. It makes people less tolerant of ambiguity, complexity, and uncertainty. That’s why it’s such fertile territory for demagogues.

But climate science is all about complexity and uncertainty. That is its essence. Climate policy is complex and uncertain. The global energy system is complex and uncertain. The climate challenge is all about taking action in the face of great threat and great uncertainty.

When fear combines with uncertainty, it creates dread, and dread is extremely unpleasant. WBEZ Chicago went out and talked to a bunch of families in the city about climate change (their report is fascinating and empathetic) and one thing they heard again and again is that it just seems awful, so people don’t think about it.

One Loop resident admitted "climate change is important." But when we asked if he’d think and talk about it more after having [climate scientist Heidi] Cullen at his kitchen table, he replied, "Nope."

If he did, he said, he’d just walk around depressed all the time.

For the time being, the best hope is quiet progress on climate

Climate change may overcome these obstacles and play a serious role in national political elections at some point. Surveys show that millennials are more open to government intervention and more concerned about climate change than their elders, while serious climate deniers are mostly old white guys who, statistically speaking, will die before millennials. So the balance will shift.

What Obama demonstrated is that serious progress doesn’t have to wait for a national discussion about climate change. The president has a great deal of power. How the next president uses that power, at this highly sensitive moment in history, could reverberate for generations.