Scientists worldwide accept that Earth is warming at an unusually rapid rate, that humans are primarily responsible, mainly by burning fossil fuels, and that the consequences for humanity will be disastrous if we don't take immediate, widespread action. The U.S. Defense Department calls climate change a security risk "because it degrades living conditions, human security and the ability of governments to meet the basic needs of their populations."
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People in the U.S. and around the world are already experiencing the costly impacts: more frequent and intense extreme weather, prolonged droughts, flooding in coastal areas, contaminated water, ocean acidification, growing refugee crises and more. Every month this year has become the new hottest on record, and the past three years have also broken records.
Considering the magnitude of the threat, you'd think global warming would merit an entire debate between the two contenders for president of what is still the world's most powerful and influential country. At the very least, it's significant enough to warrant numerous questions from debate moderators and thorough policy discussions from the candidates.
So, in three debates, how many questions have moderators asked about climate? How much time have candidates devoted to discussing it? The answer to the first question is zero. They've been asked about email usage, abortion, Muslims and taxes, but not about an issue that overwhelms all the others.
The answer to the second question is "barely five minutes", mostly about energy rather than climate. One candidate extolled the virtues of fossil fuels and mythical "clean coal" while the other promoted the misguided notion of natural gas as a "bridge fuel" to help us transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. But for much of the three debates, one candidate threatened and called the other names and discussion centred on issues such as tweets about a former Miss Universe and who has the required "stamina" to lead.
That doesn't mean both candidates and their parties are equal on climate change. One talks about the need to shift to renewable energy and has a party platform that outlines solutions. The other calls climate change a "hoax" perpetrated by the Chinese, and believes in promoting fossil fuels at the expense of renewables. But even their differences on this critical issue aren't getting airtime.
"I've been shocked at the lack of questions on climate change. It really is fiddling while the world burns," Massachusetts Institute of Technology climate scientist Kerry Emanuel told the Guardian, calling it "collective cowardice."
Although the U.S. joined 194 other countries and the European Union in December 2015 in agreeing to keep global average temperatures from rising more than 2 C above pre-industrial levels, and has now ratified the Paris Agreement, the country's oil industry is booming. In Canada, which also ratified the agreement, governments continue to approve, promote and subsidize fossil fuel projects like pipelines, LNG development, coal exports and oil sands expansion.
Although we've known about climate change and its causes and consequences for a long time, and we have a wide range of viable solutions, with more and better ones developed daily, our political representatives — and, to be fair, many people they were elected to represent — don't appear to understand the gravity of the situation or to have the courage to address it. A complacent public and compromised media mean the topic is all but ignored during one of the most important, albeit bizarre, political campaigns in recent history.
Solutions and opportunities could and should be included in these debates, as well as in media coverage and everyday conversation: carbon pricing to provide incentives for clean energy and disincentives for outdated, polluting technologies; increasingly efficient and cost-effective clean energy and storage technologies; protecting natural carbon sinks; and changing agriculture practices.
We've ignored the problem for so long that a smooth transition is becoming more challenging every day. For those hoping to head a country that has shown leadership in so many ways to ignore or outright deny the problem is a punch in the face to humanity. Let's hope that, whatever the outcome on November 8, the U.S. government will heed its experts at the Pentagon, NASA, NOAA and every other scientific and policy department and get serious about climate and the measures needed to ensure citizens' well-being and survival.