This story has been updated.
It’s becoming more and more clear what role climate and energy issues are going to play in this presidential campaign — a minor one at best. On the one hand, it’s a slight improvement upon the campaign of 2012, in that the subject of our warming planet is now actually coming up peripherally in presidential debates. But the mentions hardly do justice to the issue’s global significance or to just how differently the two candidates would handle the biggest environmental problem of our lifetimes.
Yet in a campaign focused more and more centrally on the character of Donald Trump and his shattering of political norms, it may very well be the conversation that’s occurring is all our discourse can bear.
That became clear in the second presidential debate Sunday night (transcript), where the penultimate question posed was actually about energy.
Audience member Ken Bone asked: “What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs, while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?”
Trump didn’t even address the “environmentally friendly” part. Rather, he continued to blame coal’s decline on the Obama administration’s policies, even as he praised the one energy source that has hastened its demise: Cheap natural gas enabled by the fracking boom.
“Now we have natural gas and so many other things because of technology,” Trump said. “We have unbelievable — we have found over the last seven years, we have found tremendous wealth right under our feet. So good. Especially when you have $20 trillion in debt.”
Trump’s contradictory statements about energy, and his ignoring of the environment and the climate, beg multiple follow up questions — but Clinton didn’t press him on the matter. Granted, she made clear that the climate issue is a key part of how she views global energy — and that she wants wind and solar to boom in the U.S. even more than they have so far.
“I have a comprehensive energy policy, but it really does include fighting climate change, because I think that is a serious problem,” she said. “And I support moving toward more clean, renewable energy as quickly as we can, because I think we can be the 21st century clean energy superpower and create millions of new jobs and businesses.”
And that was it. Even though Trump has been a veritable fount of climate change denial, and even though it is hard to understand how he can simultaneously promote fracking and promise to restore U.S. coal, Clinton did not point these things out. The moderators, pressed for time, asked no follow-ups.
So why does this keep happening?
Possibly because the Clinton campaign knows the climate is a winning issue for them, yet mainly in strategic places and at strategic times — that’s why Clinton will campaign with Al Gore in Florida this week. Meanwhile, the political media appear as uncomfortable as ever with either prioritizing or delving deeply into a science-laden subject that never appears quite urgent enough.
But these aren’t the only or even the most important things going on. In the entire debate Sunday, there was also no mention of Hurricane Matthew, which had just caused many billions of dollars of damage and 21 deaths in this country alone, so far as we know at this point — to say nothing of a searing humanitarian disaster in Haiti.
The hurricane had been the leading story in the news — until, that is, the leaked “Access Hollywood” tape hit. At that point, there was simply no room to talk about anything else.
Only Donald Trump could knock a massive East Coast hurricane from the lead of the news.
— Chris Cillizza (@TheFix) October 8, 2016
And so it goes for climate change as well. This might well have been the year for it to debut as a major campaign issue. Yet in a debate in which one presidential candidate threatens to jail the other if he’s victorious, the damage we’re doing to the Earth just couldn’t rise above the damage that’s being done to political discourse.
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