Why Has Climate Change Been Omitted from Debates this Election Season?

The American public has been through the ringer — an 18-month-long election season marked by intense divisiveness, numerous scandals, and an unprecedented amount of clickbait. While the presidential field winnowed, we all bore witness to 11 consecutive months of record-breaking temperatures, whether we realized it or not.

Yet, this election cycle’s presidential and vice presidential debates have been completely devoid of discussion involving climate change.

Perhaps this is because immigration, the national economy, and foreign policy are more pertinent to voters. Maybe climate change is such a divisive issue between the two major parties and the two candidates stand so far apart on the issue that it doesn’t require discussion on the national stage (unless you count Ken Bone’s question about clean energy in the second debate). Or, it is easier to digest and express outrage over the deluge of revelatory emails, constant antagonization of minorities, questionable use of private technology during an era of public service, release of vulgar verbal exchanges, and general offensive sound bites and gaffes.

Climate change is not easy to talk about. In California, we have seen wildfires ravage our forests, statewide government-mandated water restrictions to combat the drought, all while a warm blob of water formed along the coast of California, wiped out kelp forests, and permanently altered the research trajectory of many crestfallen graduate students (or maybe just this one).

Each of these discrete events merit lengthy discussions about their causes, impacts, and recurrence potential. But, a holistic discussion about these seemingly disparate topics becomes more difficult, especially as you begin to factor in ocean acidification and deoxygenation along the California coast.

Across the country, the severity of Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, and Matthew have been attributed to storm intensification courtesy of climate change. In Alaska, glaciers are melting so rapidly, that National Parks Service staff cannot update signs quickly enough. And, sea level rise has claimed its first “climate refugees” from Isle de Jean Charles, the ancestral lands of several southeastern Louisiana Native American tribes. And, this is just the tip of the iceberg (too soon?).

It is all but impossible to discuss these pressing issues within the two-minute time limit allotted to each presidential candidate. But, there is a deeper crisis and a more uncomfortable truth that may be behind the omission of climate change at the presidential debates. Natural disasters are periodic events that require tremendous financial planning and emergency infrastructure to be employed when a “state of emergency” is declared. What is a country, nay a planet, to do when we are in a persistent “state of emergency” inundated by all of the above issues at once? How can any human being, let alone a presidential candidate, fathom that?

And so, some of us settle for superficial discussion of the Clean Power Plan as an allusion to climate change, while others are outraged that this critical, time-sensitive issue is treated as a low-level threat to be dealt with by future generations. Some of us use the Paris Climate Agreement as a beacon of hope that global entities are finally taking action to resolve/mitigate/handle climate change.

But, what does it say to world leaders that climate change is not a topic worthy of our national stage? That it is not a priority for the American electorate? How do developing countries interpret climate change neglect by this very well-developed country?

And, what does it say to the American people? To those in low-lying states vulnerable to coastal flooding, living in high-risk wildfire areas, or susceptible to drought?

It is time to change the nature of public and political climate change discourse. To see this discussion become commonplace in future debates, we of course must pressure our congressional representatives to address this urgent issue. But, most importantly, we must begin discussing the consequences of climate change in present-day terms, not just future generations. Only when we begin considering how climate change will impact the next four to eight years will we see active discussion by our country’s leaders and those who moderate their debates.

Ocean and Climate Scientist; PhD Student at UC Davis studying the effects of climate change on shellfish aquaculture. https://blogs.forbes.com/priyashukla/

Ocean and Climate Scientist; PhD Student at UC Davis studying the effects of climate change on shellfish aquaculture. https://blogs.forbes.com/priyashukla/