Campaign Forecast: Hot & Cold on Climate Change


If it turns out as it appears that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the major parties' candidates for the presidency this year, one of their clear-cut differences will be their positions on global climate change. Secretary Clinton is a climate hawk; Mr. Trump is a climate denier.

But if there must be a split between the candidates on this issue, it should not be about whether climate change is real or, as Mr. Trump would have it, a Chinese plot. Mother Nature is settling that argument, just as climate scientists said she would. No, the discussion should be about who will do the most to mitigate the risk that the weather disasters that are now so common will get much, much worse.

For starters, both candidates should pledge not to backslide on the progress that President Obama has made. We are far from where we must be on climate action, but we are much farther along than we were eight years ago. And while a future president or Congress might find a better way to bring carbon emissions down, there should be no retreat on the goals President Obama has established. In fact, they should be adjusted upward on the ambition scale.

What might tempt Mr. Trump and candidates for Congress to ignore the climate issue are the frequent polls that show it ranks at the bottom of the voters' priority lists. But as I have written before, the ranking polls are deceptive. They are based on the false premise that each of the issues on the list exists in a stovepipe separate from the others.

In the real world, climate change has big impacts on the four campaign issues Gallup has found are most important to both Democrats and Republicans right now: national security, the economy, jobs and health care. Let's break it down once more.

National security: The nation's top-ranking defense and intelligence officials have warned for years that climate change multiplies the threats of terrorism, conflicts and world instability. The warnings appear in the official analyses and reports of the National Intelligence Council, the Department of Homeland Security, the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, the National Research Council, the Department of Defense (DoD) 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, and the White House National Security Strategy.

The Defense Department told Congress last year that it "sees climate change as a present security threat, not strictly a long-term risk". Even the Republican Party Platform acknowledged the national security implications of climate change in 2008, saying that the United States should take action that "if consistent with our global competitiveness will also be good for our national security, our energy independence, and our economy."

The politicization of climate change has been openly criticized by some of the nation's highest-ranking former military officers. Sixteen of them signed a statement two years ago that "We are dismayed that discussions of climate change have become so polarizing and have receded from the arena of informed public debate."

The economy and jobs: The national business association Advanced Energy Economy (AEE) has been tracking growth in the clean energy sector, which it defines to include energy efficiency, demand response, energy storage, natural gas power generation, solar and wind energy, hydropower, nuclear power, electric vehicles, biofuels and smart grids. From 2011 to 2015, the sector's revenues grew nearly 29% to $200 billion. It now employs 2.7 million workers.

The technology consultancy ICF International estimates that the emerging clean energy sector will add more than 1 million jobs to the economy by 2030 and as many as 2 million jobs by 2050. Jobs related to renewable energy technologies will surpass those lost in fossil energy industries, ICF predicts, and household disposable income is likely to increase nationwide. The jobs gained in clean energy will be better than the jobs lost in the fossil energy sector, ICF says.

The Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory explains "There are two main reasons why renewable energy technologies offer an economic advantage: (1) they are labor intensive, so they generally create more jobs per dollar invested than conventional electricity generation technologies, and (2) they use primarily indigenous resources, so most of the energy dollars can be kept at home."

Pubic health: Climate change and carbon pollution are global threats that get very personal. The health impacts of global warming range from exposure to heat waves and casualties from weather disasters to more waterborne diseases due to warmer temperatures.

Some of these problems already are present. Researchers found at least five years ago that the allergy season was weeks longer than in the past because of warmer temperatures. Warmer temperatures are contributing to the spread of diseases, too. The latest example is the likelihood that by creating warmer and wetter weather, climate change has led to the appearance in the United States of the mosquitos that spreads the Zika virus.

Air pollution from the same fuels that cause climate change also increases health risks. Researchers at Harvard University calculate that energy efficiency measures and low-carbon energy resources can save a region as much as $210 million every year in avoided deaths and illnesses from air pollution.

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When voters are asked about climate change alone, it ranks pretty high on their list of worries these days. Gallup found in March that 64% of adults say they are worried about climate change. Two-thirds of adults believe that climate change "will eventually pose a serious threat to them or their way of life." Gallup says that's the highest number since it began tracking climate opinion in 1997.

Even 56% of the voters who support Donald Trump think global warming is underway, according to a poll released in April by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Whether we read the polls or the weather forecasts, this should be the year of the Climate Election -- the year that voters connect the dots between global warming, its adverse impacts on the issues they care most about, and the need to elect leaders who will help us make a rapid transition to a clean energy economy. If that happens and if we do it right, we all will win.

Photo Credit: Scientific Visualization Studio/Goddard Space Flight Centre, 2016