The Difficult Domestic Politics of Climate Change

by Paul R. Pillar

Going into the first televised joint appearance (commonly called a debate) of the two major party presidential nominees, the 2016 election campaign has given disturbingly little attention to the looming long-term catastrophe represented by climate change. Certainly the issue deserves much more attention as measured by the relative intrinsic importance of topics that do get discussed. This includes not only diversionary topics such as Hillary Clinton’s emails but also real policy issues such as ones involving the political future of Syria.

It’s not as if the candidates do not represent major differences in what they have said about climate change. Hillary Clinton considers it a serious problem and has presented a list of proposals and policies intended to address it. Donald Trump exhibits the sort of inconsistency he exhibits on many issues, but all that he has said on the topic is far removed from Clinton’s position. The closest Trump comes even to acknowledging the issue is to say that he’s “not a big believer in man-made climate change” and that although “there could be some impact from climate change” it won’t be “devastating”. At other times he has said that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China.

Besides Trump’s inconsistency, another major challenge in addressing the issue in this election year has been the same sort of challenge as on many issues on which Trump has emitted a flurry of falsehoods. One has to work to establish basic truths—however firmly established those truths may be outside the circle of Trump and his most committed followers—before even getting to debate about the best policy prescriptions. With so many falsehoods to combat, there is hardly time left for real policy debate. And it is hard not to sound pedantic when talking about the scientifically recognized truths about man-made climate change.

That gets to one of the major obstacles, as Edward Luce notes, to effective public action on climate change: a widespread distrust of experts, including scientific experts. A second major obstacle Luce identifies is the fear among many people that doing something about climate change will make them poorer. This fear feeds opposition to something like a carbon tax, which sounds like it would increase the cost of living.

The political obstacles to effective action to arrest climate change persist as the technological obstacles have been diminishing. Technological advances involving renewable sources of energy have made cost comparisons with nonrenewables much more favorable than they were just a few years ago.

Trump’s campaign, even if he loses in November, obviously constitutes a negative regarding any hopes for a realistic and effective policy toward climate change that will have strong public support. But the political problem goes far beyond Trump. Powerful politicians were doing fatuous climate-change-denying stunts such as throwing snowballs in the Senate before Trump began his candidacy. The current Republican Party platform does not call climate change a hoax but its policy proposals would hardly be different if it did make that call. It opposes any governmental encouragement of renewable energy (“This is the triumph of extremism over common sense, and Congress must stop it.”), opposes any carbon tax, and opposes the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.

Clearly at least as much careful thought and effort must be devoted to overcoming the political resistance in the United States to effective action on climate change as to developing the most technically and economically effective solutions to global warming and to handling the also difficult international diplomatic issues. The political challenge involved is large, but some techniques such as the following might help.

One is to play off current natural disasters and other conspicuous climate-related problems that can command attention. This does not mean making the same kind of faulty argument as the climate change deniers who point to every winter cold snap as a refutation of global warming. One can be intellectually honest while still being politically astute in picking visible problems to highlight. Take, for example, the threat that the encroaching sea poses to military facilities in the Hampton Roads area and especially the U.S. Navy’s large presence in Norfolk, Virginia. Defining climate change as a national security problem only insofar as it affects military facilities and operations reflects an overly narrow conception of national security—surely having a habitable planet is as much a part of our citizens’ security as anything else—but it may have greater attention-getting power. A rising sea level is not even the entire problem in this instance (the land is also sinking in Norfolk), but it certainly is part of the problem.

Another technique is to emphasize the immediate, short-term economic positives of action. Especially with the advances in renewable energy, there are ample opportunities to do so. The main story should not be coal miners losing jobs but rather the opportunities for new jobs and economic advancement, for them and for others, as part of a more sustainable economy.

A potential catastrophe still looms, but the best ways to avert it may involve talking not just about the catastrophe itself but about narrower concerns that have greater political resonance in the United States.

Photo: Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) on the floor of the Senate 

This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.

Guest Contributor

Articles by guest writers.