When asked what group of people he was most proud to have as an enemy, block-of-granite Lincoln Chafee replied determinately: “I guess the coal lobby.” Just days later, we lost Lincoln “America’s Rock” Chafee to a lack of Chafe-mentum, and the somewhat indecisive climate change torch had to be passed to a new champion.
King-of-the-uncomfortably-long-anecdote and frontman-of-a-Celtic-rock-band Martin O’Malley stepped up to be the next defender of the polar ice caps. Despite a definite, though not unexpected, lack of questions concerning climate change in the overwhelmingly-many-yet-so-few Democratic primary debates, O’Malley managed to bring up climate change often and with an air of strength on the issue. Unfortunately for the lead singer of O’Malley’s March, he was outflanked on the left by a Democratic socialist Jewish Vermonter from Brooklyn and on the right by the former-FLOTUS-turned-New-York-senator-turned-Secretary-of-State-turned-whatever-you-want-her-to-be-really.
This time, the climate change torch wasn’t so much passed as it was lobbed haphazardly into the air for one of the other candidates to catch. And catch it they did not. In all fairness to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, they have talked about climate change, but the majority of that talk came while Chafee and O’Malley were still in the race. Sanders was happy to point to climate change as the greatest national security threat to the United States, and Clinton has touted her plan to move to enough solar energy to power every home in America by the end of her first term.
Neither of the two remaining Democratic contenders, one of whom will probably be close to the nomination when this article hits print, have come back to climate change in a strong way since we lost the governors of Maryland and Rhode Island. Unsurprisingly, Sanders and Clinton have come to focus on the issues that they see as divisive; after all, they can both agree that Republican climate-deniers hate polar bears and asthmatic children, and they really don’t need to keep saying it until the general election. Certainly, then, it is logical that, in a primary, the candidates would focus on economic and foreign policy issues. Bernie gets a lot more press when he hits Hillary on Wall Street campaign contributions than he would for explaining at length why he and the former Secretary of State largely agree on climate change. In the same way, it benefits Hillary to hammer home her greater foreign policy experience. So, can we blame them? Shouldn’t we expect that the Democratic primary would not have a focus on climate change? Can’t we trust our candidates to enact the policies they have outlined on their respective campaign websites?
Frankly, yes, we can blame them, and no, we cannot necessarily trust them to act on their plans if and when they enter the Oval Office. To parrot the liberal Vermont senator: climate change is the greatest enemy and scourge that we face as a species. We have become numb to the annual reports from NASA, NOAA and similar groups declaring the preceding year “the hottest year on record.” Not only was 2015, once again, the hottest year ever recorded, the last month of the year was the hottest month on record. This statistic is reported by the mainstream media, but then they go out of their way to find one scientist that denies climate change is caused by humans (and whose research is funded by the fossil fuel lobby) and a dozen GOP congresspeople who hammer home their deep-seated opposition to any regulation because “it won’t fix the planet, it will just hurt the economy.” The media presents the two sides as equals and then calls it even. Of course, Sanders and Clinton cannot control the media, but this points to a more systemic problem with Democratic politicians that the president, especially, needs to confront: they just aren’t as loud as the climate-deniers. They cite the statistics, and every once in a while they call out Republican politicians and present plans for a change in policy. But, the media calls both sides even and give more air time to the more outspoken and convicted side. Democrats may have the science on their side, but they don’t have the advantage of volume or conviction.
That’s not to say that Democrats are inept when it comes to climate policy. President Obama has not been particularly outspoken about climate change, but he did take part in the COP21 climate summit in Paris last December, which was a historic step forward for climate change policy. According to the UN Conference on Climate Change, the agreement (which will hopefully be ratified in the coming months) aims to keep global average temperature change below 2°C and mandates that the top polluting nations contribute a total of at least $100 billion yearly to help poor nations, especially small island nations, deal with the changing climate. This plan is ambitious, but at the moment it is just that, a plan. Even the current set of accords, which will go into effect if the agreement is ratified by 55% of UN member nations, is only projected to keep warming to around 3°C by the end of the century, a full degree above what scientists consider the danger threshold. Participating nations are expected to submit more ambitious plans every five years, the hope being that this will eventually decelerate pollution enough to keep the average global change below 2°C. This requires, however, that we have a president who is absolutely, unapologetically 100% committed to climate change policy, which brings me back to my earlier question: can we trust our candidates to keep to the policies they have outlined and move forward with the COP21 accords?
Well, maybe. I have no doubt that both Sanders and Clinton will at the very least uphold President Obama’s policies from the Paris talks. They will both probably even try to take them further when the time comes to draft a more ambitious plan. However, they face a long, uphill battle, and not one I am sure they will have the resolve, or the attention, to finish. Parts of the deal will eventually require ratification by the Senate, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wasted no time in reminding the president that “the deal is subject to being shredded in 13 months.” Without decisive leadership from the next president, this deal could go the way of the Kyoto Protocol from the last Clinton administration. Fearing defeat in the Senate, Bill Clinton never submitted the Protocol for ratification, and the United States was largely not bound by its provisions. I have different fears for the two Democratic candidates, but they end in the same result for our planet. Bernie, for better or worse, will likely spend his entire first time battling for the economic reconstruction that is very obviously the cornerstone of his campaign. Don’t get me wrong, income inequality and campaign finance reform are vitally important, but they won’t address climate change, at least not directly and not immediately. Hillary, I fear, is too entrenched in compromise with the other side in order to “get things done.” Not to mention that she has ties to the fossil fuel industry, just like she criticizes the Republicans for.
This election season, the ship has sailed. We don’t have a candidate that will make stopping climate change a number one priority. Next cycle, we need to. The planet isn’t going to wait for us fix the rest of our problems; if we keep up this pace, by the time we end the debate over all of our social and economic issues, we’ll have to start a new one over how to delegate the 1% crop yield, what to do about island nations that are disappearing into the ocean, and which 10,000 people get to go try to re-establish the human race on another planet. In reality, the rest of the world will not go along with the Paris accords without strong participation and leadership from America, and if we don’t get everyone on board, we all drown together.
This time around, the revolutionary spirit is surrounding the candidate who wants radical economic change. This change is important, and I hope for the sake of millions of Americans that we achieve it. But in four years, the revolution needs to fight for the fate of our planet, because if we wait any longer it might be too late to turn the ship away from the massive, glaring iceberg (or not since they’ll all be gone) we’re heading toward at full speed.