Hurricane Sandy, and the possibility that the natural disaster was linked to climate change, might change some of the presidential candidates’ campaign rhetoric in the final days leading up to election day on a topic that has been largely ignored thus far.
It is startling that the candidates have ignored the issue of climate change, yet at the same time, the exclusion is an unfortunate indicator of how uninformed many Americans are about the importance of protecting the environment.
Throughout the 2012 campaign season, the presidential candidates singularly focused on a variety of issues that they believe the average voter cares about, with the economy and foreign policy often taking center stage while climate change and other issues sat at the margins. The debates were no different: This year’s presidential debates were the first in 28 years that didn’t mention climate change.
And this is probably because most Americans haven’t taken an interest in climate change. In Gallup’s most recent “Most Important Problem Poll,” only 2 percent of Americans said they believe the environment and pollution to be leading issues. Though the presidential campaign nears its end, the next president and all politicians, as drivers of national discourse and, thus, public consciousness of issues, must take a stand for climate change so that the people do as well.
Within the scientific community, climate change and its implications, such as increasingly extreme weather, is widely accepted as fact. Ninety-seven percent of scientists recognize that climate change is happening, according to PBS.
Beyond scientists, the Pentagon also acknowledged climate change in a 2010 report: “Climate change and energy are two key issues that will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment. Although they produce distinct types of challenges, climate change, energy security and economic stability are inextricably linked.”
Despite these confirmations, instead of discussing climate change or environmental policy, the closest either of the candidates got to speaking about the environment in three presidential debates was when Obama and Romney sparred over who loved coal more and who could do a better job at sucking oil out of the Arctic. Another point of contention between the two candidates was Obama’s efforts to establish “green jobs,” or jobs that promote the usage of renewable energy. This discussion, however, was relegated strictly to the field of economics, both candidates trying very hard to skirt the reasons and motives behind creating “green jobs.”
There’s little doubt that Obama accepts the scientific view on climate change. In a 2008 speech, Obama said, “Not only is [climate change] real, it’s here, and its effects are giving rise to a frighteningly new global phenomenon: the man-made natural disaster.”
Romney agreed, endorsing the issue in a 2011 town hall meeting: “I believe the world is getting warmer, and I believe that humans have contributed to that.”
Though they apparently recognize the existence of human-caused climate change, neither candidate has taken a substantial position on the subject this election season.
This is regrettable. When candidates and debate moderators choose to omit certain issues because they are not the most popular topics or not the ones that will help garner the most votes, they limit the sphere of discussion to a narrow selection of issues.
Voters would believe climate change to be an important issue if the candidates, and politicians in general, treated it as such. Ignoring climate change does nothing to prevent it from taking place. Students should be especially concerned, as we are coming of age in an environment that seems primed to face more and more extreme weather on an increasing basis because of climate change.
The arrival and aftermath of Hurricane Sandy might propel climate change into the last week of presidential campaigning. But it will take a fundamental push from Washington to convince Americans that climate change is an issue that requires large-scale action.
Matt Tinoco is a freshman majoring in international relations.