Remember When We Thought Climate Change Would Matter This Election?

The presidential election is almost over, and climate change was hardly an issue. Should we really be surprised?

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Oct 20 2016, 7:33pm

Image: Roxanne Desgagnés

This was supposed to be the election where climate change really mattered. Only, anyone watching the presidential debates wouldn't have a clue that 1) 2016 has been history's hottest year on record, and 2) our future leaders give any sort of crap about it.

Climate change was mostly ignored during the last three debates, mentioned only in passing, and never discussed directly or at length. In fact, I'm fairly sure that Americans know more about Donald Trump's sexual proclivities than his environmental policies (hint, hint: he doesn't have any).

But should we really feign surprise? Surely even the most hopeful of us didn't expect global warming to compete with jobs, the border, or national security on the campaign trail. After all, this has been an election based on political identity, and when Americans can't even agree on whether climate change is real, what's incentivizing our candidates to fight for it?

Just one question, posed during a town-hall by Ken Bone, a coal industry worker, shed any sort of light on the climate agendas of our two vastly different candidates. (And even then, Bone was criticized for not asking anything of real substance, as if energy policy, which lies at the heart of our climate change catastrophe, matters less than whether a candidate is a fan or not of science.)

No one is more upset about this than journalists—many of whom anticipated, toward the beginning and middle of the election, that issues like renewable energy, the Paris Agreement, and a carbon tax might actually rise above the slurry of opposition and talking points, and become key voting issues. "This year, every vote is a vote for or against climate change," wrote Wired. "Many young voters see climate change as THE issue in 2016," said PRI.

Then, slowly but surely, as we listened to Trump and Hillary Clinton scream about emails for the seemingly millionth time, the media refrain shifted to incessant harumphing and arm-crossing. "Why has climate change been ignored in the US election debates?" asked The Guardian earlier this month. "A reminder that we have heard basically nothing about climate change this election," said Jezebel today. Of yesterday's debate, Vox wrote: "But if you're that worried about the future, why not talk about global warming?"

But climate change, we seem to have forgotten, it isn't all that important to voters. When it comes to matters like science, environmental health, and public accountability, Americans are more torn than ever.

According to a study by the Yale Program on Climate Communication, just 17 percent of the US population considers climate change a "top-tier" issue this election. Even among those who admit they're "concerned" about climate change (approximately 28 percent of the US population), global warming doesn't rank among their top 10 voting priorities. A separate Gallup poll found that four issues were most important to both Democrats and Republicans: the economy, terrorism, jobs, and healthcare.

As Motherboard editor-in-chief, Derek Mead, wrote earlier today:

"Climate change, and the environment as a whole, has always taken a backseat to more pressing economic and social justice issues—which, for what it's worth, were also largely ignored this year—and that's fine. It's unfair to expect voters to ignore the gaping wounds they're staring at, and to instead pay attention to a potential hand grenade that's Plinko-ing its way down towards their heads."

I don't think it's possible to say, for sure, why climate change was so utterly neglected this election season. Maybe it's because the issue is a deeply polarizing one, and neither candidate, but primarily Clinton, knew how to discuss it in a way that would resonate with middle-of-the-road voters. Maybe it's impossible to talk about climate change without threatening someone's political identity. Did the news cycle determine what would dominate the debates, such as Trump's history of sexual assault? What if behind the scenes, debates were never even meant to disseminate topics that truly matter to the American public?

After this election, it's going to be difficult to believe that concern about global warming has finally reached critical mass. And I suspect that won't change until its effects are knocking at our front door. Many Americans are still detached enough from consequences like drought, wildfire, and species extinction to hold onto a sliver of cognitive dissonance, and perhaps our candidates know that.

"There are too many good reasons why we humans resist the many sad facts of climate disruption, the 'global weirding,'" said Per Espen Stoknes, author of What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming.

"It finally boils down to the question, Why bother? Humans will act for the long-term when conducive conditions are in place."