Climate silence and the US election

The US election campaign has been the first since 1984 not to mention climate change in a single debate. What does that say about the state of the nation?

“Lower, meaner, duller campaigns there have been,” wrote David Bromwich in the New York Review of Books of the US presidential election that ends, mercifully, next week, “but never one in which so many issues were treated with such studious avoidance by the presidential candidates of both parties.”

On no issue is the silence as deafening as that surrounding climate change.

In the four years since the 2008 election – a year when both candidates included proposals for emission reduction and green jobs in their platforms, and when healing the planet and slowing the oceans’ rise was prime-time speech material – climate change has magically morphed from a subject worthy of serious debate to a political football best kicked under the bleachers and forgotten about.

Read also: Hurricane Sandy puts US on alert for climate-change and extreme weather

According to Friends of the Earth, this is the first election since 1984 that has not mentioned climate change in a single debate. In 1988 – back when mobile phones looked like this, the Internet was just a baby and Beijing had no shopping malls – the moderator referred to the planet’s warming with the measured calm one uses to address matters of fact.

Two decades later, climate change’s most memorable moment in this election was as a punchline.

The forgotten majority

The two candidates are at a dead heat. President Barack Obama and governor Mitt Romney may say that they’re talking to the American people in their speeches and debates, but really they’re not. Thanks to the US electoral college (an arcane system of voting), in the final weeks of an election candidates care only about undecided voters who live in states that matter.

Obama and Romney are talking to a paper-thin sliver of the American electorate. At times it seems they’ve forgotten that the rest of us in the US and the world are still listening – not for an argument that will determine our vote, but for some sign of the leadership that either a President Obama or a President Romney will have to display.

The question for anyone who cares about the future of the planet (or “you climate change people”, as one debate moderator dismissed us) is whether this silence on the environment is simply a campaign tactic, or a sign that the US is abdicating its responsibility to change the course of irreversible climate change that it – more than any other single nation – has helped to chart.

On one hand, it’s to be expected that this election cycle would be an inward-looking one. When economies go down, voters shift their attention to domestic policies. With unemployment at 7.8%, the election has focused on jobs and perceived threats to those jobs – including China.

At the 22 October debate focusing on foreign policy, Obama and Romney levied virtually interchangeable attacks on China’s economic policy. Both assert that the US trade deficit with China is a threat to national security, and that unfair manipulation of the renminbi and theft of intellectual property has hurt American industries and cost workers their jobs.

“China is both an adversary, but also a potential partner in the international community if it’s following the rules,” said Obama. “We can work with them, we can collaborate with them, if they’re willing to be responsible,” Romney said moments later.

Altering the current trajectory of global warming can’t be done without meaningful participation from the world’s two greatest emitters of greenhouse gases. With that kind of rhetoric on the record, it’s hard to imagine either candidate working collaboratively with the leader emerging from next month’s political transition.

The “sharp swing” to the right

On the other hand, America’s silence on climate in 2012 is baffling. Just this week, Superstorm Sandy killed at least 70 people after ripping through the east coast. The US this year has been battered by its worst drought in half a century. The crop-shrivelling heat damaged 80% of agricultural land (including the key battleground states of Ohio, Iowa, Colorada and Wisconsin).  A survey of the world’s 500 largest companies earlier this year found that they lost billions of dollars last year to extreme climate-related disasters like floods. Isn’t addressing the climate as much in America’s economic interests as health care and education?

The disappearance of environmental issues from election-year rhetoric is a direct result of the sharp swing to the right that the Republican party has taken following Obama’s election and the rise of the fundamentalist Tea Party movement. The party has moved so far right that it’s no longer in sync with many moderate conservative voters in the US, or its conservative counterparts abroad.

In the United Kingdom, Conservative David Cameron’s coalition government has (at least on paper) adopted the cause of climate change – an unthinkable position for any elected Republican hoping to keep his job. In China, a country that has traditionally preferred the more conservative foreign policy approach of Republican administrations, Romney’s sharp rhetoric has alienated government leaders who aren’t quite sure what a new Republican presidency would look like.

Environmentally minded Republicans see public mention of the issue as political suicide within their party.

“With primaries so partisan, most Republicans don’t dare mention [climate change] publicly for fear they won’t come out of a primary,” said Rob Sisson, president of ConservAmerica, a conservative environmental group.

ConservAmerica has close relationships with 50 or 60 Republican members of Congress who take the threat of climate change to national security seriously, Sisson said in an interview with the New York Times. “But they have a question: ‘Would you rather have me here or have me lose to someone who comes from an entirely different place?’”

No electoral gain from climate change

Democrats, meanwhile, have decided that the issue is just a loser with the public. Less than 10% of voters say climate change is a “very important issue”. After being burned politically by the collapse of the government-backed solar company Solyndra, Obama has calculated that there’s not much to gain by trumpeting green initiatives, so better to devote time and resources to issues that might sway those important undecided. 

The result is what the US television reporter Chris Hayes called an “asymmetry of passion”. Those who feel vaguely that “someone should do something” about the climate are drowned out by the vitriol of those who believe whole-heartedly that global warming is a hoax, or a waste of time. Presidential campaigns – like the administrations that follow them – don’t expend time or resources on issues that no one cares about.

At its best, the US is an inspiring place of bold innovation. What is upsetting about this election cycle is that both Obama and Romney seem to be campaigning for an America that is turning inward, that lacks the moral leadership to go after complicated challenges of global importance, that shrinks from responsibility with a reflexive assurance of its own greatness.

“We’ve still got the best workers in the world, the best universities, the best scientists, the best – we got the best stuff,” Obama said in September. “If you doubt it, just understand: there’s not a country on earth that wouldn’t trade places with us right now.”