Donald Trump believes climate science is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to rob America blind, and he vows to try to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord immediately upon being elected president. Meanwhile, as Coral Davenport recently reported, world leaders have been trying to figure out if there is a way to lock in major countries behind the global deal before Trump can do that, because such an action could badly weaken the deal’s long term success.
In other words, international leaders are literally scrambling around to salvage the planet’s long-term prospects from Donald Trump. If he were to try to pull us out, it could not only deal a debilitating blow to the deal itself; one expert has warned it could also precipitate a diplomatic crisis.
If only there were an exceptionally high profile setting in which Trump might be pressed to detail his views on these matters.
Oh wait, there is. There are three presidential debates coming up, and the first one is expected to be watched by as many as 100 million people, an audience that may include viewers from all around the world.
As was widely noted at the time, the 2012 presidential debates featured zero discussion of climate change. But now, a confluence of new circumstances makes it substantially more pressing that the debate moderators and the candidates do discuss these issues this time around.
For one thing, the positions of the presidential candidates on climate issues could have vastly more real world significance than they might have four years ago. Take the Paris accord. It’s not clear yet whether Trump could succeed in withdrawing the U.S. from the deal in the short term, but even if he didn’t, there are other ways that Trump could frustrate its progress, simply by refusing to participate in international meetings about it or by refusing to submit reports documenting U.S. contributions to it.
Then there’s Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a rule that imposes targets on states for the reduction of carbon emissions from existing power plants. The plan is currently held up in the courts, but if it ends up proceeding, it will be key to long term efforts to reduce carbon pollution, and to meeting our commitments as part of the global deal. Trump has vowed to repeal the rule, along with untold other regulations, but that might be harder than it looks. Still, there are various ways he could undermine it.
The point is that, unlike four years ago, the positions of the presidential candidates on climate change actually could have a very dramatic practical impact. Clinton has vowed to preserve Obama’s climate actions, including both the Clean Power Plan and our participation in the global accord.
What’s more, as the advocacy group NextGen Climate recently pointed out, there’s also a national security angle that suggests more urgency around getting the candidates to talk about these issues. A bipartisan group of national security experts recently released a letter that argued climate change poses myriad threats to national security, and called for the U.S. to “advance a comprehensive policy for addressing this risk.” Trump keeps telling us he’ll be very tough and effective on national security. It might be useful, then, for him to explain whether he has any such comprehensive policy, or if not, why he thinks all these experts are wrong.
There are plenty of good reasons for Clinton to be asked tough questions about climate, too. As David Roberts recently reported, environmentalists are skeptical her support for fracking in places where local officials back it, and are uncertain just how committed she is to various policies that would redouble our commitment to the general goal of keeping fossil fuels in the ground.
The bottom line, though, is that climate is an area where the stakes are enormously high and where there are very dramatic differences between Trump and Clinton. Trump calls climate change a “hoax.” Clinton calls it the “defining challenge of our time.” As Time magazine recently put it:
Climate change stands out as perhaps the most egregious area of disagreement between the two candidates, given its stakes and the significant scientific consensus that humans have caused it.
The debate moderators would do us all a service by prodding the candidates to discuss and illuminate these differences. A lot is riding on them — perhaps even more than on whether Trump comes across as “presidential” and Clinton comes across as “likeable,” if such a thing is possible.