Last night (August 6, 2015), as most of the world knows, the candidates for the nomination of the Republican Party for President of the United States in 2016 squared off for the first time in the first debates of this election cycle. Because there are so many candidates there were actually two debates: a main one featuring the “frontrunners” who have poll standings above a certain level, and a debate dubbed the “kids’ table” of candidates who didn’t reach that level. Both were hosted by Fox News. Most of the press today about the debates has focused on the dramatic show of the frontrunners’ debate, especially the fireworks provided by controversial reality show host Donald Trump–who also happens to be the leading Republican candidate right now. But in hours of combined debate among 17 candidates, there was virtually no mention of the single most important issue facing the United States and the world right now: climate change.
This is not too surprising, of course. The shocking truth is that of the 17 declared Republican Presidential candidates, fully 16 deny the existence of anthropogenic global warming. The only one who even admits it’s real–Lindsay Graham, Senator from South Carolina–is polling at less than 1% and was relegated to the somewhat pathetic “kids’ table” debate. In fact Graham was asked the only question at either debate that even mentioned climate change. The question itself was ridiculous. In a tone of undisguised horror, the moderator asked Senator Graham how, since he believes in climate change, the Republican Party can possibly trust him. Graham’s answer was a limp policy-free mishmash of words that was more an attack on Hillary Clinton than a substantive answer. And this was the only mention of climate change at either debate.
I can’t imagine a more telling exposure of how profoundly disconnected from reality the American political system–and its media–is in the year 2016. Climate change, and how we’re going to deal with it, is the most important political, economic and social issue in the world today. It is more important than ISIS, jobs, the economy, the Iran nuclear deal and NSA spying/digital privacy, all of which got considerable play at the debates; not that those issues aren’t important, but climate change is clearly more urgent, more global and more difficult than any of the other matters that the political media has identified as important to 2016. In fact climate change is significantly related to some of these issues that the Republicans do want to talk about. For example, some experts have argued that environmental factors in Syria linked to climate change have contributed to the civil war going on in that country, which is the stage on which ISIS has arisen. Millions of jobs in the United States could be created by investment in green energy and other strategies to mitigate climate change. The Pentagon has identified climate change as a national security threat requiring reassessment of military strategies. It’s a win-win for Republicans to deal substantively with climate change issues–yet denial remains their chosen stance in dealing with those issues.
The American political media is complicit in this willful blindness, and not just right-leaning media like Fox News who can be expected to maintain conservatives’ orthodoxy of denial. Rachel Maddow, generally thought of as the most liberal of major media pundits, doesn’t even mention the words “climate change” in her lengthy story summing up last night’s debate (though, to their credit, Salon.com did have an article on it). Instead of holding candidates accountable for dodging and ignoring the most important issue on the world’s plate in 2015, the media seems much more interested either in horse-race narratives–like whether Trump will run a third-party campaign if he’s denied the Republican nomination–or else false controversies that the candidates themselves have manufactured to gain Republican primary votes, such as the zeal to crush Planned Parenthood for an entirely mythical set of moral transgressions. Indeed mainstream media, regardless of its political bent, devotes considerably more time and activity reporting on political theater, like meaningless polls taken 15 months before the election, than on climate change and its very complex host of related issues.
Sadly, the media is more interested in “catnip” like Donald Trump’s Republican credentials than what he would do to stop climate change.
Would a Trump administration rescind EPA rules classifying carbon dioxide as a pollutant? How will President Walker respond to international pressure calling for the United States to enter a treaty specifying binding emissions targets? Does President Kasich plan to contribute foreign aid funds to island nations like the Maldives to assist in preparing for the evacuation of their entire populations before rising sea levels destroy their countries? Would President Jindal hold the line on stopping warming at 2°C by the end of this century, even if it meant deep emissions cuts, or would he accept a 4° increase despite its disastrous effects–such as inundation of much of the state of which he is currently Governor? These are the questions the media should be asking these candidates, not whether they insulted Rosie O’Donnell. And even if, as seems likely, the answer to every one of these questions is, “I deny the proven scientific fact of anthropogenic global warming,” the media should force the candidates to repeat this non-answer so often that the depth of their irrationality and lack of judgment becomes abundantly clear to the electorate whom they are asking to vote for them.
The real irony here is that, despite the Republican candidates’ denial of climate science, if any one of them were actually to become President he would be forced to confront climate change nonetheless. Climate change and its problems exist regardless of who believes, or does not believe, in them. Extreme weather events causing mass casualties and economic disruption, or a threatening military conflict related to climate change causes, would demand a response from even arch-denier Donald Trump were he to find himself sitting in the Oval Office. In this sense, denial is irrelevant because it simply can’t change the facts. Indeed, whoever wins the 2016 election will undoubtedly be forced to deal with climate change to a greater degree than any of his (or her) predecessors. It’s the media’s job to remind voters of this. They seem to be neglecting that responsibility.