So, Are Americans Going to Talk About Climate Change This Election?

After presidential debate and one vice-presidential debate, there have been exactly zero questions about climate change.

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Oct 7 2016, 7:37pm

A driver sits in a car in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, during floods in September 2015 caused by a combination of factors including sea-level rise believed to be caused by climate change. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On Tuesday, anonymous Democratic officials told CNN that the Hillary Clinton campaign is about to trot out 68-year-old former vice president Al Gore in an effort to reach millennials who are concerned about climate change. Curious choice. Sure, Gore won an Oscar ten years ago for a climate change documentary, but if he couldn't get young people to care about his cable channel (rest in peace, Current TV), how is he going to gin up enthusiasm for a candidate who many young people still aren't excited about?

Still, these super exciting new campaign speeches from Al Gore will at least resurrect an issue that's been mostly ignored since the Democratic primary. There were no questions about climate change during the first presidential debate—though Clinton briefly brought up Donald Trump's weird theory that climate change was a Chinese hoax—and no questions about it during this week's vice-presidential debate. And Democrats looking to score points by at Trump's expense find plenty of ammunition in his lies, his temperament, and his tendency to insult people, but they rarely mention that he's a climate change denier.

Not that Trump is alone in his denialism. A Pew report released this week on climate issues in politics found that a sizable majority of conservatives distrust what climate scientists say, and only 48 percent of Americans think the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity. It doesn't matter what Trump or anyone thinks, of course, because the climate is changing.

Last month, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography announced that atmospheric measurements had once again surpassed the 400 parts per million mark for carbon and that it looks like this time we're never going back—meaning many of climate change's effects are now locked in for good. Also last month, a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that there has now been record-breaking heat for 16 months in a row. And now there's Hurricane Matthew, a record-breaking storm set to rip apart Florida's east coast. Scientists generally don't like to link single weather events to climate change, but climate change does cause more extreme storms.

Meanwhile, the Paris agreement, the landmark climate change accord signed in April, has been ratified by enough nations to go into effect—though Trump, of course, would move to cancel it if he became president.

This election will be enormously consequential one way or another when it comes to climate change. So why aren't we hearing more about it about it?

"Politicians don't know how to talk about [climate change] effectively," Renee Lertzman, a consultant who performs market research around climate change, told me. Lertzman assembles focus groups and works with climate educators to figure out what messages resonate, and she has observed people "hungering for an authentic way of talking about this issue."

But Americans also view greenhouse-gas-producing activities and industries as a "big part of who we are and our identity," which makes the general population defensive. "This leads to a taboo around speaking out about it," she said.

That might be why Clinton—whose website says she'll be "taking on the threat of climate change and making America the world's clean energy superpower"—has mostly kept quiet about climate. She's only mentioned the topic in one out of five speeches since Bernie Sanders endorsed her in July, according to the Guardian. Last month, when Clinton wrote an op-ed for Mic—part of an apparent attempt to get the youngins excited about her campaign—she didn't mention the environment at all.

Author and prominent climate change activist Bill McKibben told me that he thinks Matthew will find its way into the campaign, and bring climate change with it. "I have a feeling that just as Sandy finally got climate on the agenda a few days before the 2012 election, Matthew may be enough to remind us that we live on a physical planet."

McKibben also hopes that the moderator at Sunday's presidential debate will use the recent NOAA data as a way to talk about climate change. A good question might be, "What's your plan for going well beyond the Paris accords and actually limiting the rise in temperatures to the two degrees [Celsius] that is our supposed target?" McKibben suggested.

On Sunday, if one of the moderators, or one of the undecided voters in the crowd, fires a tough climate question at Clinton, Lertzman has some advice. "I would tell her to be as down to earth as humanly possible," she said, and suggested that Clinton avoid the temptation to just harp on how backward Trump's policy of denial is.

"You want her to acknowledge where people realistically are, and say that's why we have this opportunity to show what it means to be a human being," Lertzman offered, "instead of saying, 'You bunch of fucking ignorant people.'"

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