Those who closely follow the problem of climate change are used to being disappointed by U.S. political campaigns and elections. After all, here is this massive global problem that, it seems, continually fails to gain major traction. Much of the country still denies it, non-science journalists seem afraid of it, and candidates have often not wanted to touch it. It notoriously did not come up in any of the 2012 presidential debates.
Something seems to have happened with the Monday’s 2016 presidential debate, however, that just might ignite the subject. And moreover, it could do so in a way that is potentially bad news for Donald Trump, whose habit is not only to deny the science of climate change, but to do so in a dismissive way that plays into the hands of a quite knowledgeable Hillary Clinton, and begs easy scrutiny from fact checkers.
Let’s run back over what happened to trigger all of this. It starts with this infamous Trump tweet:
Clinton dinged Trump on this quite early in the debate, leading him to bizarrely deny it. Here’s the exchange:
CLINTON: Take clean energy. Some country is going to be the clean- energy superpower of the 21st century. Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. I think it’s real.
TRUMP: I did not. I did not. I do not say that.
CLINTON: I think science is real.
TRUMP: I do not say that.
But the tweet is right there. Its own language implies a hoax, and in other cases, “hoax” is the actual word Trump used.
It was the contradicting of his own tweet that really dug Trump into a hole, because this meant that the political press, often hesitant to dig into this science-infused issue, could simply point out the blatant contradiction in a binary fact-check manner.
Accordingly, Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway had to defend him on climate issues Tuesday morning on CNN, where she basically said that he denies widely accepted science. More specifically, Conway stated “he believes that global warming is naturally occurring,” and when CNN’s Alisyn Camerota clarified whether that meant it isn’t caused by humans, she stated: “Correct.”
There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is mainly caused by humans – or as the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put it in 2013: “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”
There is also growing fear about just how fast change could come – a place where uncertainty still persists — and how bad it will be.
Trump’s vice presidential pick, Mike Pence, was also entrained. Later on CNN, he appeared to diverge somewhat from Conway, arguing that “there’s no question that the activities that take place in this country and in countries around the world have some impact on the environment and some impact on climate.” “Some impact” isn’t accurate either — as you can see above, human activities are the driving force — but Pence is here retreating to the more easily defended stance of a more practiced, but still skeptical, politician.
The point is that all this puts the issue on the radar, and it could potentially be bad news for Trump, especially if in a future debate they really get into the subject — where Clinton can be expected to show a policy mastery and where Trump seems to strangely link the issue to nuclear weapons (something he did later in the debate, and has done before).
“Ironically, Trump’s absurd climate science denial has raised the issue’s political profile, drawing attention also to repeated attempts by Republicans in Congress to undermine the climate protections Obama is pursuing and Clinton will continue,” said Paul Bledsoe, who worked on the climate issue for Bill Clinton’s White House. “And as climate impacts, like the Louisiana floods, keep getting worse, there’s a sense that enough is enough — that the political kid gloves are finally off when it comes to climate change.”
There is also reason to think that Clinton may have strategically brought the subject up last night because she and her advisers think it helps her politically — specifically, with the millennial voters that she needs to sway away from third party candidates in this election.
Billionaire Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate campaign, for instance, has been literally waiting for a debate moment like this because it believes that once millennials perceive the true difference between Clinton and Trump on this issue, they’ll know how they want to vote.
“Hillary Clinton twice brought up climate change and clean energy in the early minutes of last night’s debate, showing she knows it’s a winning issue for her, particularly among millennials,” said Jamison Foser, a senior adviser at NextGen Climate. “Donald Trump falsely denied his previous false claims that climate change is a hoax, showing he even understands that voters are looking for candidates with solutions–not someone who buries his head in the sand.”
As I have written before, some polling evidence also suggests ways that the issue could favor Clinton over Trump — for instance, there are now quite high levels of public acceptance of climate change amid record high global temperatures. Moreover, there is reason to think it helps her reach those who worry most about the issue, whether millennials or Bernie Sanders supporters now flirting with voting for Green Party nominee Jill Stein.
But even more than that, the climate issue now seems to be feeding into something else: The sense that Trump just can’t speak with factual accuracy. It’s one thing for him to run away from what he actually tweeted. But it could be even more remarkable if he has to debate Clinton on the actual science and try to defend denying a powerful global scientific consensus, or abandoning a global agreement backed by the entire world, the Paris climate accord. Monday’s debate seemed to prime that confrontation.
Granted, even though the issue has now been injected into prime time, it could easily fade again. It’s still nowhere near a top concern of voters, compared with terrorism or the economy, and it’s also a very tough subject to get the political press to care about. It’s hard to fit into a horse race narrative and it rarely rises to the top of the agenda. It merely abides, continues, worsens, and threatens people who are young more than people who are old — Clinton’s voters if she is to win.