Climate and the Candidates

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump is surrounded by members of his family as he speaks at a campaign event o
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump is surrounded by members of his family as he speaks at a campaign event on the day that several states held presidential primary elections, including California, at the Trump National Golf Club Westchester in Briarcliff Manor, New York, U.S., June 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Co-authored with Nancy L. Rosenblum

Paul Krugman's column "The Id that Ate the Planet" (New York Times, June 6) pulled no punches: "At this point Donald Trump's personality endangers the whole planet."

Alarmed scientists warn there is little time to ward off catastrophic climate change. During the next four years action at every level of government and efforts by citizens will be crucial. Climate change should be the issue of this election.

The contrast in the presidential race could not be sharper: a climate rejectionist vs a candidate who confronts the daunting challenge. Trump, like many Republicans, has moved from denial of man-made climate change to rejection -- to a partial awareness of actuality but unwillingness to acknowledge and act upon overwhelming evidence.

Trump would "cancel" the Paris Accords, the universal recognition that escalating climate change would destroy the human habitat -- that moment of what one of us (Lifton) has called "species awareness." The Paris framework of pledge and review is respectful of nations' domestic decisions, so Trump gets it entirely wrong when he says "This agreement gives foreign bureaucrats control over how much energy we use on our land, in our country."

Trump's outpourings are spasmotic. He first cast climate change as a Chinese hoax to make the U.S. less competitive, later saying this was a joke and substituting another untruth: "Because China does not do anything to help climate change. They burn everything you can burn. They couldn't care less." Trump's language is dismissive - "canard", "mythical", "con-job", "nonexistent." "Very expensive global warming bullshit has to stop." "I think that climate change is just a very, very expensive form of tax." As usual, big is his go-to term: "Not a big problem at all...it's a big planet." Also as usual, "I know much about climate change."

Trump does not know much. His pronouncements are science-free and economics-free, devoid of diplomatic sensitivity, and less political strategy than a characteristically willful striking out against information, argument, and all that we have painfully learned. He rejects every known mitigation policy. Indeed in his energy speech Trump's advocacies could hardly be more damaging: he has promised to revive the coal industry, de-regulate oil and gas, build pipelines. He would "stop all payment of U.S. tax dollars to global warming programs."

He casts cooperation with other countries as a surrender of American autonomy and cares not a wit about America's reputation as a partner in this crucial international accord. Trump's plan is an "America First" (and America only) non-plan. He has plaintively said one almost-true thing: "You can't watch the news anymore. It's always weather."

Yet Trump has applied for permission to build a sea wall to protect his golf course in Ireland from erosion caused by what he there admits is "global warming." This is why we say he is less a climate denier than a "rejectionist." His personal need (self-serving) and political need (anti-regulation, anti-social planning) compel him to defy the scientific facts most of the time but invoke climate change when it is in his direct interest.

In contrast, Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, advocates both immediate mitigation measures and has a firm commitment for the long run. She brings programs and incentives and the moral backbone needed "to protect," as Pope Francis wrote, "our common home."

Bernie Sanders has spoken out more militantly than Clinton and has appointed leading climate activist and writer Bill McKibben to the Democratic convention's platform committee.

Partly influenced by Sanders and climate activists, Clinton's position has evolved. She came out against the Keystone pipeline and off-shore drilling, would protect public lands from extraction of fossil fuels, and would impose demanding conditions on fracking including community approval. And she has defined goals - a third of the nation's electricity from renewables by 2027, a half billion solar panels installed be the end of her first term, and unequivocal support for the most significant policy to date, President Obama's Clean Power Plan.

Again, spurred by Sanders Clinton speaks about "climate justice." She addresses the disruption and human pain of people in fossil fuel and allied industries faced with transition away from a carbon-based economy, and has a $30 billion plan to assist coal communities.

Clinton understands the science and knows that the politics are daunting. The climate issue dramatically underscores the importance of combining their strengths, as they did when Clinton actively supported Sanders' 2007 Green Jobs Act.

70% of Americans agree with them about the reality of climate change and 58% worry about the danger. The numbers keep rising. For people living in areas of fire, drought, floods, sea-level rise, insect-ravaged forests, the derangement of everyday life is immediate. But overall public awareness is still fragmented, polarized along partisan lines, and for many, future risks are not as salient as other concerns.

Even the Democratic candidates did not emphasize climate change on the primary stump. Right now it is not a "winning" issue. Without more intense focus on climate in the general election -- that unique moment /when people across the country are listening -- it could become a losing issue for not only Americans but the human species.

Dr. Robert Jay Lifton is author of Witness to an Extreme Century: a Memoir and has written on nuclear and climate threats.

Nancy Rosenblum is Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard University and author of On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship.