What Topic Was Left Out of the Presidential Race for the First Time Since 1984?

RTA_blog_2012_1106_ClimateChangeDuring the 2012 campaigns for President of the United States, one topic was conspicuously absent from the discussion. Climate change was never mentioned during the debates despite organized campaigns to bring up the topic. That got us wondering why…

James E. Hansen is the Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He’s also considered the father of climate change. The idea that that global warming may be influenced by the activities of man has been discussed for decades yet Hansen thrust it back into the popular culture (and enabled Al Gore’s legacy) by providing data and sophisticated models to support his projections of a warming planet.. and the consequences brought by increased temperatures. His data and opinions helped spawn groups like the “climate change refugees” in the image above. In August, Hansen published an op-ed in the Washington Post about being wrong on climate change – he claims it’s “worse than we thought”.

The idea of global warming got some traction at the end of the summer as a record drought spread across the United States, particularly its heartland. The projected effects on agriculture were alarming. The result was articles about farmers coping with climate change and discussion about the global impact of the US exporting much less grain and other critical dietary staples like corn – which is now in just about everything we eat (in some form or another). So why wasn’t global warming part of the political discussion? It was, at least for some groups.

We’ve made an effort to follow a diverse group of people, agencies, companies and associations through social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and others. That allows us to see the priorities of those groups through what they choose to share. We noticed a number of groups going absolutely berserk about the absence of global warming discussion.

A look into how the issue of climate change reveals that it’s been politicized to the point that it can’t be discussed in the popular formats for presidential debates. Why? Because there’s so much information presented by different interests, you’d spend the time allotted for your answer just unpacking the issue – before you have a chance to offer any solutions.

Format has a lot to do with the issue. With so many topics distilled down to two or three minute segments, our society rarely has the opportunity to get into any detail. This prevents us from finding any common ground.

An example is the running point and counter point in various news outlets and pundit blogs. For example, we happen to think it’s funny when conservative political commentator Mark Steyn gets on a roll yet this August we noticed a post in the National Review about Michael Mann “of Climategate infamy” threatening to sue over Steyn’s recent reference to his work as “fraudulent”.

Bloomberg’s BusinessWeek shared a commentary titled “A Climate Change To-Do List for the Next President” yet many of the comments at the bottom of the article argue against the points of the commentary. The Wall Street Journal recently published Roger Pielke’s opinion piece warning about the perils of trying to connect energy policy and natural disasters. Pielke uses weather events to poke holes in the theory of climate change causing more and more significant storms.

So what’s the average US citizen to believe? How did we get to the point where climate change wasn’t mentioned in presidential debates for the first time since 1984? In part, the economy has dominated the discussion, yet FRONTLINE offers a historical look at how this issue became so politicized in its hour-long program focused on the  “the groups who shifted the direction of the climate change debate”.

To help you navigate the discussion, we offer the following notes:

1) “Global warming” is the concern – “climate change” isn’t an appropriate term because our climate is always changing… even when it’s cooling. The increase in global temperatures is what’s typically modeled to explore issues like a rise in sea level.

2) Lack of ownership is a critical barrier to action. Global warming is a global issue so it’s difficult for one person to see how he|she can make a difference. We can share ownership of a political issue by finding the common ground that unites us.

For example, even if you don’t believe in global warming, there are some significant reasons to take action. We think the following three points are issues that we all share and fixing these issues in the short term will help us address global warming in the long term.

3) Conservation is much less expensive than production. Our building codes have made significant gains in the last two code cycles (six years). For example, our energy code has developed to the point where the return on additional conservation requirements quickly diminishes – it’s not cost effective to be much more efficient than the latest codes.

We have huge opportunities to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels for power generation and transportation through conservation. The importance of conservation should be more clearly articulated as a compliment to changing our behavior and developing new technologies.

4) We’ll achieve energy security by introducing a blend of renewable energy sources in the United States. That doesn’t necessarily mean centralized power generation – on-site power generation (around which our buildings can be designed) will give us significantly more energy independence and reduce our carbon emissions.

Although solar panels aren’t as efficient as we’d like them to be, we’re already able to design buildings based on the potential for on-site energy generation. Solar power, combined with wind and other available local energy sources will allow us to offset enough of the energy we generate from fossil fuels to have a significant impact. These technologies also give property owners independence from power companies. In that sense, a diverse collection of energy sources has many benefits.

5) We’ve always approached sustainable building with health as the key priority. To that end, we recently published a blog post contrasting solar and wind power with the other available sources. As we do a better job collecting data, it’s easier to see the connection between water use and power generation. Better metrics also allow us to track issues like air pollution from coal-fired power plants. The technology that would address air pollution from those power plants could also address our carbon emissions issues.

6) In the political discourse about smaller government and frivolous stimulus spending, it’s important to remember that the government can make strategic investments in technologies. To us, that doesn’t mean investing in private companies; it means judiciously funding public research that enables private business to grow a market segment around a technology. We see that method as a historically successful way of unleashing American ingenuity.

The challenge is guiding the development so the technology is scalable and complimentary. It’s important to focus on more than the centralized power generation like we’ve had for generations. We need to create technologies that work together as systems. For example, we need more effective solutions for storing excess energy from renewable sources – capacitors have a long way to go before they can be effectively used in residential properties.

7) Finally, in following the discussions about the potential of a carbon cap and trade market, we’ve noted the impact of (potential) markets on political decisions. Similar to Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex, we noticed a significant number of people salivating at the idea of a carbon market larger than any other commodity market in the world… potentially worth trillions of dollars. Excitement over a potential market may seem like a “yes” vote from private business when it’s really just people scrambling to be included in the next big thing.

Determining whether cap-and-trade legislation is best for America may not be part of the equation when there’s millions, if not billions of dollars to be made. The potential profits beget targeted lobbying and a collection of other practices that make it more difficult for us to separate fact from fiction.

We think it’s possible to assign priorities by using the notes we’ve provided – rather than focusing on the money to be made, we should exhaust conservation efforts, solve security issues, address health concerns and investigate the other, related points.

That’s the end of our list. We hope you found the notes helpful! At 1400 words, this is one of our longest posts – thanks for taking the time to read this far. Please let us know what you think and feel free to share your resources – we all want to make informed decisions.

Here’s the intro for FRONTLINE’s aptly-titled “Climate of Doubt”:

Photo by ItzaFineDay used under creative commons license.

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