Proverbially, the world ends either with a bang or with a whimper. But last night we learned that it will end, instead, in silence. In a debate that was all about how we relate to the rest of the world, neither President Obama nor Gov. Romney ever mentioned the global devastation being wrought by climate change, the mass extinctions that are unfolding, the multiple pandemics that can break loose at any moment, the poisoning of the land, the oceans and the air we breathe, or any of the other enormous threats we face.
Nor did moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News ask a single question about it. Nor did he ever even plan to.
Neither did moderator Candy Crowley in the second debate, explaining later that it was an issue that was only relevant to “you climate change people.”
But even such middle-of-the-road policy groups as the Council on Foreign Relations consider this to be at least one of the top issues in foreign relations:
Climate change is a really big global problem. You don’t need to be convinced of impending doom to believe this – you just need to accept that we’re running some pretty large risks. When the moderator of the last debate (the Candy Crowley comment above) half-apologized to “the climate people” for not touching on the subject, she revealed something important: too many people think about climate change as a special interest issue. It isn’t, and the candidates’ approaches deserve to be debated. This one is simple to tee off: just ask each candidate what he’d do.
But that didn’t happen last night. Moderator Schieffer did give the candidates the opportunity to bring up the topic themselves by asking:
“What do you believe is the greatest future threat to the national security of this country?”
But neither candidate talked about the one overarching global threat to our security: the unfolding extinction disaster. Instead, we had this from Romney:
“The greatest threat that the world faces, the greatest national security threat is a nuclear Iran.”
And this from Obama:
“I think it will continue to be terrorist networks.”
This was the first time in a generation of presidential debates that the subject of climate change simply didn’t come up.
This is even more remarkable when you consider that this was the first time in a generation of presidential debates that the subject simply didn’t come up.
Fully 24 years ago, in the 1988 debates, climate change was a major item on the agenda. And so it has been in every election cycle since … until now, as you can see in this video compilation from Climate Silence:
As we’ve noted before, this isn’t because the candidates are ignorant. They know what’s happening, and they also know that talking about it is election suicide. The American people just don’t want to know. The level of denial is escalating in direct proportion to the level of the threat. Gov. Romney is even falling over himself to deny what’s in his book No Apology, where he wrote, “I believe that climate change is occurring” and “human activity is a contributing factor.” Now he says “We don’t know what’s causing climate change.”
Last weekend, in the New York Times, reporter Scott Shane took up the topic:
Both parties would rather avert their eyes from such difficult challenges — because we, the people, would rather avert our eyes. Talk to any political pro about this phenomenon and one name inevitably comes up: Jimmy Carter, who has become a sort of memento mori for American politicians, like the skulls in Renaissance paintings that reminded viewers of their mortality.
When it comes to climate change and extinction, Republicans are the more scared of the two parties:
Democrats are more loath than Republicans to look squarely at the government debt crisis indisputably looming with the aging of baby boomers and the ballooning cost of Medicare. Republicans are more reluctant than Democrats to acknowledge the rise of global temperatures and its causes and consequences. But both parties, it is fair to say, prefer not to consider either trend too deeply.
Shane talks about this in the context of the need that Americans have to see themselves as better than anyone else.
This national characteristic, often labeled American exceptionalism, may inspire some people and politicians to perform heroically, rising to the level of our self-image. But during a presidential campaign, it can be deeply dysfunctional, ensuring that many major issues are barely discussed. Problems that cannot be candidly described and vigorously debated are unlikely to be addressed seriously. In a country where citizens think of themselves as practical problem-solvers and realists, this aversion to bad news is a surprising feature of the democratic process.
Shane quotes Deborah Lea Madsen, professor of American studies at the University of Geneva, as saying that any American politician who speaks too candidly about the country’s faults risks being labeled with that most devastating of epithets: un-American.
Indeed, he adds, our American Exceptionalism self-delusion leaves us in complete unreality – not just as regards climate change, but so many other major issues. In terms of child poverty, of the 35 most economically advanced countries, the United States ranks 34th, just ahead of Romania; and we’re worse than 48 other countries in terms of infant mortality.
No surprise, then, that with droughts, floods and freezes in the news almost every day, so many of us can’t even bring ourselves to believe that something is wrong.
And so like the Roman Emperor Nero, we fiddle while the world literally burns. That’s what we’re voting for. And that’s what we’re going to get.