Why Climate Change Could Be the Elephant in the Room at Tonight’s Presidential Debate

by Cassady Craighill

September 26, 2016

It might not look like climate change is on the agenda tonight, but if Trump and Secretary Clinton take these topics seriously, it will be.

Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump

Left: Clinton at a campaign stop in Ohio. Photo by Paula R. Lively. Right: Trump giving a speech in Arizona. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

One of the most anticipated debates in history, the first presidential debate of the 2016 election takes place tonight.

This has been a grueling election cycle, one that’s been largely absent of thoughtful discussion on some of the country’s most pressing issues — social justice, income inequality, and climate change among them. The closest to actual policy talk in recent weeks was Hillary Clinton’s “Between Two Ferns” appearance, in which she confirmed that she is “not down with TPP.”

Should we expect that level of discourse to change tonight? Probably not. Still, Lester Holt — tonight’s moderator — has announced that tonight’s topics will be “America’s Direction,” “Achieving Prosperity,” and “Securing America.”

The standard for political rhetoric in this election has been set so low — like, “Donald Trump defending the size of his hands” low — it’s anyone’s guess as to how the candidates will choose to tackle these topics. But if they dig into the substance, this debate should have everything to do with climate and energy.

Just in case the candidates don’t take it there, we will.

America’s Direction: A Clean Energy Future

“America’s Direction” should be toward a place where communities are free to develop and implement climate solutions that meet their needs and improve their quality of life. Toward a country that utilizes the power, ingenuity, and capacity of people when even the darkest challenges arrive.

For too long, fossil fuel companies have corrupted our democracy and tried to convince us that people are powerless and dependent, but movements are rising up to prove them wrong. They’re challenging projects like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, kicking Shell Oil out of the Arctic, exposing state-sanctioned violence against people of color, and more.

These movements are ascendant and interconnected, and they are transforming America. Fossil fuel corporations and the politicians that serve them are no match.

Achieving Prosperity: The End of the Fossil Fuel Era

Let’s face it, the fossil fuel industry has a business model that’s incompatible with the future.

In most states, renewable energy is already cheaper than coal, and in many cases cheaper than new gas. This trend isn’t just in the United States, but across the world. On top of that, the solar industry already employs more people than the oil and gas drilling industry. Finally, most major U.S. coal companies are in bankruptcy, securing bonus payouts for executives even as they ditch obligations to workers and communities.

Some of the largest and most prosperous companies in the world — Apple and Google, for instance  — are making the switch to 100 percent renewable energy because it’s good business. If Trump were the kind of business visionary he claims to be, we’d hear a lot more from him about the growing renewable industry as opposed to his favorite oil baron.

If America wants a booming economy, lower energy bills for people across the country, more and better jobs, and air that doesn’t kill you — all things that fit the definition of “prosperity” — clean energy is a straightforward recipe.

Securing America: Treating Climate Change Like the Threat It Is

This one might be the real no-brainer.

Earlier this month, President Obama issued a memo stating the impacts of climate change must be integrated into the country’s national security strategy. It reads, “no threat is more terrifying in its global reach or more potentially destructive and destabilizing than climate change.”

The president is not alone. The Pentagon recently ordered that its operations and commanders are required to prioritize climate change, calling the crisis an immediate threat to national security.

Meanwhile, pipelines are bursting and oil rigs are leaking all over America. Ongoing investigations into lead-contaminated drinking water in places like Flint, Michigan are exposing a major environmental justice crisis. These are real threats to public safety and well-being going unchecked by energy corporations and regulators.

Our leaders, presidential and otherwise, must acknowledge these urgent threats to our security. We can’t afford to wait until the next tragedy to act.

Climate Action Now

Ralliers at the 2015 People’s Climate Movement demonstrations made it clear, people all over the world want climate action now.

Anyone that wants to lead this country needs to think about direction, prosperity, and security in regard to a just transition — a vision for America powered by renewable energy and driven by people, not corporations.

We’ll see how Trump and Secretary Clinton do tonight. They, and future moderators, will have to answer to you and me if baseless, inflammatory rhetoric takes precedence over addressing the issues that matter most to Americans.

Cassady Craighill

By Cassady Craighill

Cassady is a media officer for Greenpeace USA based on the East Coast. She covers climate change and energy, particularly how both issues relate to the Trump administration.

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