The 2016 presidential election campaign is finally almost over. It’s been nearly a year and a half since Ted Cruz became the first major candidate to launch his campaign on March 23, 2015. Cruz was soon followed by 22 other major Republican and Democrat candidates. During that time 191 countries signed the Paris climate agreement, President Obama rejected construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, Pope Francis released an encyclical on the environment and climate change, the flint water crisis made national headlines, Volkswagen was found to have cheated on emissions tests and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that 2015 was the hottest year since modern recorder keeping began.
Despite thousands of hours of campaign speeches, rallies, interviews with candidates and general coverage of the election, the environmental records and proposed policies of the various candidates were rarely discussed in election coverage by most media outlets. Most of the major candidates (with the exception of Bernie Sanders) rarely talked about environmental issues outside of brief mentions in stump speeches. For the most part, the press did not question candidates about or report on their views on environmental challenges and policy. Given the major environmental events that occurred in 2015 and 2016, the missed opportunities to inform the public about where the major presidential candidates stood on these issues were numerous.
In the four general election debates (three presidential and one vice presidential), consisting of a total of 6 hours of questions and responses by candidates, there was just one question that had anything to do with the environment. This question occurred in the second town hall-style presidential debate and was asked by audience member, Ken Bone who 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 responded by railing against regulations on the energy industry, and Clinton spent a large portion of her allotted response time accusing Trump of buying cheap Chinese steal for his buildings before turning to the question and stating that she has a comprehensive energy policy that supports renewable energy. Ken Bone became an internet sensation in his own right, but, in classic form, the focus of this brief moment of fame did not center around his long overdue question about energy policy and the stances of the candidates poised to become the next leader of these United States. Instead, both social media and the mainstream media focused on his lovable personality and that truly inconsequential red sweater.
When asked why environmental issues are so often overlooked in the media, many point to the fact that environmental issues are often less tangible. Invisible gas being released to the atmosphere does not grab attention as easily as images of a town devastated by a tornado or an explosion from a terrorist attack. The timeframe of the impact is also often mentioned, especially in regards to climate change. Problems in which the full impact will not be felt for many decades don’t command the attention of the media as much as problems that impact the public immediately.
While most experts agree with these arguments, reviewing election coverage of environmental issues in the context of recent major environmental events and comparing it to campaign coverage of other issues, suggest something more is going on. As noted by Paul Krugman, the federal deficit and national debt are issues whose impacts, like climate change will not be fully felt by the public until sometime far in the future. Despite this, the debt and deficit were frequently discussed by many major candidates and in media coverage of the election. The national debt or deficit were mentioned on 26 separate occasions in the presidential and vice presidential general elections debates and Ted Cruz’s effort to shut down the federal government to prevent an extension of the federal debt limit help him achieve national attention.
Likewise, inadequate funding of social security is another issue often discussed by candidates and reporters covering the election, and an issue that was brought up 6 times during the debates. This is another issue where catastrophe could be on the horizon if we do nothing, but the full impact has not yet been felt. Seniors have not stopped receiving their full benefits, nor is there a chance that that will happen next year, or for that matter in the next 15 years (The social security administration does not project problems paying full benefits until 2034 if no changes are made). Despite this, Social Security receives significant discussion in election coverage.
In contrast, we do feel impacts of environmental issues and policy daily. Children in Flint were immediately impacted by elevated lead levels in their blood, and a dozen people died from legionnaires disease suspected to be a result of improperly treated water. The decision on the Keystone Pipeline means that construction will not happen this year, and Volkswagen was forced to immediately recall 11 million vehicles worldwide. Even the issues relating to climate change had immediate impacts. The Paris agreement will affect policy all over the world and the Pope’s encyclical will influence the opinions and actions of millions of people. And yet these critical issues are not included in the national conversations with our potential leaders.
So why are the national debt and social security discussed so much in the context of the election while the environment is rarely discussed? Is it because reporters do not ask candidates about these issues or report on the environmental views and track records of the candidates, or is it because the candidates do not bring up the issue in their speeches and interviews? In reality, it is both. Candidates respond to reporter’s questions, but reporters also ask questions and report on what the candidates say. Candidates also react to what their opponents say. If one prominent candidate were to speak frequently about environmental issues, it is likely that reporters and other candidates would discuss these issues more. The same is true if many reporters were to frequently ask candidates about their positions on the environment and report frequently on those statements and positions. Unfortunately, neither is likely to happen if the public does not demand more from our candidates and our media.
It does not matter who starts the conversation–what matters is that the conversation gets started. As with many other issues, catastrophe is most certainly on the horizon if we let everyone get away with doing nothing. We seem to have missed the boat yet again in the coverage of the 2016 presidential election but we can still demand more, from our elected officials, from our news outlets, and from each other.
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