Environmental Issues and the U.S. Presidential Debates

Peter J. Stoett’s new book, Global Ecopolitics: Crisis, Governance, and Justice, provides readers with an excellent introduction to major global environmental challenges. Through a series of case studies, it explores the limitations and possibilities of international governance—which involves not only governments but civil society and the private sector—to create effective solutions to these challenges.

The deeper aim of the book is to encourage sustained, informed discussions of environmental policy and problem-solving. And, serving this purpose extends beyond the covers of the book. Today, on election day in the United States, we would like to share Professor Stoett’s reflections on the absence of environmental issues in the U.S. presidential debates.

It took a colossal storm to get the media to focus, momentarily, on climate change-related issues during the recent American electoral campaigns. Yet in the days before Sandy, a casual observer of the Obama-Romney debates might conclude there are no environmental issues worthy of discussion if the word “energy” is not attached (a pipeline from Canada, patriotic dreams of fossil fuel independence, and the old chestnut, the “price at the pump”). But there are (with apologies to women everywhere) binders full of them.

No mention of the greatest ecological disaster in American history, the BP Gulf oil spill. Nothing on one of the most dangerous threats to human health, the loss of biodiversity; or on the safety of the new energy panacea, shale oil and gas. No melting Arctic. No Asian Carp on the verge of invading the Great Lakes, or the West Nile virus terrorizing Texas. And wasn’t there a severe, nation-wide drought this summer that inflated food and biofuel prices? Silence.

The so-called foreign policy debate focused on Romney’s favourite phrase that evening, “American leadership,” without even the slightest mention of America’s role in an international community struggling to cope with climate change, deforestation and desertification, an unprecedented oceans crisis, and the threat of mass extinction. Some positioning on American promises made in Copenhagen on a massive climate change adaptation fund would have been fairly basic. Again, silence.

This was not an eerie, mysterious silence, but an orchestrated one. Of course, the environment will be relegated to the sidelines when the economy is on the field. But even the two Bushes found it (to borrow a word from opponent Al Gore) inconvenient not to at least pay lip service, boasting of the reforms their own “green presidencies” could make. And recall that during these elections, also, it was “the economy, stupid.”

This silence is a consequence of a sharp trend away from policy debates that can in any way trigger wayward thoughts about climate change, the latest “third rail” in U.S. politics. I just spent six months in Washington, D.C., and think tanks are definitely treating the issue seriously, but ecology vanishes in thin public air at the leadership level. Well-funded “climate skeptics,” fueled by Fox News and other conduits, have rendered the broader debate on the environment largely mute. An implicit vow of mutual silence emerged; even the moderators knew better than to go there.

Naturally, if re-elected, Obama—probably facing a hostile Republican Congress—will lack a clear mandate to move forward in even small measures. Romney, who felt comfortable publicly accusing Obama of the sin of not being a “coal and oil man,” had little environmental agenda in the first place. But what, exactly, either man would push is hard to say after watching the debates, and their campaigns have not filled the void.

As for the impact of this careful silence in Canada, this depends on how your ear is turned. Our majority party in Ottawa prefers environmental dilemmas to be as quiet as possible, and let’s be realistic: Alberta will get its pipeline south either way.

But many Canadians would have liked to have heard even a whimper of an indication as to how the next four years may look, especially in a year in which Canada assumes the presidency of the Arctic Council, where that melting sea ice is a multi-level challenge. After all, we will share many of the larger problems, including climate change and more extreme weather events such as hurricanes, coastal erosion, invasive species, and air particulate matter, with the same voters denied an adult discussion south of the border.

Thankfully, the real work on environmental improvement takes place on levels other than the presidential, and the billions of people engaged in the every-day struggle often embrace, rather than deny or try to defy, sound ecological principals. But silence is far from golden when it excludes some of the most fundamental challenges of our time from a debate which, given America’s potential leadership role, has significance for all of us.

- Peter J. Stoett

Note: If you are scheduled to teach a course that would benefit from having this book on the required reading list, please email requests@utphighereducation.com to request an examination copy. We would be more than happy to give you the opportunity to review this excellent text for yourself!

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