The last presidential debate not only continued the silence on climate change, it also advanced the false narrative that we have to choose between economic growth and action on climate change. While the candidates focused on how to keep gas prices down, increase energy independence, and create jobs, they never addressed how we can use our energy plan to fight climate change. By refusing to address climate consequences, both candidates reinforce the idea that we either focus on economic growth or we focus on the environment, but not both. In fact, the truth is the two are inextricable intertwined and we cannot address one without addressing the other.
The only time the debate came close to touching on climate change was a discussion on energy policy. Yet, instead of discussing how we need a new energy future to stave off the worst impacts of climate change, both candidates touted their love of fossil fuels and their plans to expand, not contract, their use. When asked why she didn't address climate change, the moderator said:
"I had that question for all of you climate change people. ... We just, you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing so you knew you kind of wanted to go with the economy."
I assume by "all of you climate change people," Candy Crowley meant humans. But beyond that, ignoring climate change is not only bad for the environment; it is bad for our economy. There is literally no aspect of our economy that won't be affected by climate change. For example, climate change increases the likelihood of extreme weather events, like the drought that plagued significant parts of the country this past summer. In turn, extreme drought has a heavy economic cost for farmers, ranchers, and consumers as crop yields drop and prices for food and feed increase. A recent study found that climate change will cost billions of dollars in losses to agriculture sector by 2050.
Extreme heat and drought also caused the Mississippi River levels to drop, which increased the cost of transporting goods up and down the river. A series of reports released by Dēmos earlier this year show the high economic costs states will bear as a result of climate change, ranging from increased health care costs to decreased tourist revenue to water supply shortages. Sea level rise will disrupt our energy infrastructure by flooding roads in low-lying states, like Louisiana, further increasing energy costs.
Yet, discussion of these challenges were nowhere to be found in the debates. If anything, both candidates doubled down on policies that would advance climate change. Mitt Romney and President Obama reiterated their support for coal, oil, and natural gas and each promised to increase drilling. While President Obama did mention support for energy sources of the future, like wind, solar, and biofuels, his support for them was based on energy independence, not because they help transition us to a sustainable low-carbon economy.
As long as energy independence remains the primary goal, we will never reach our full energy potential, let alone fight climate change. The fossil fuel interests are too entrenched in our political system and will fight tooth and nail to ensure that we remain dependent upon them, instead of investing in our energy future. However, if we shift our priorities so that averting climate change is our primary goal, then we can have a real energy and economic future.
With fighting climate change as our primary goal, we can begin implementing policies that make us stronger environmentally and economically. Refocusing our investments into renewable energy creates far more jobs per dollar invested than fossil fuels. Shifting the cost burden from the public to polluters brings in more revenue and deters polluting behavior. Encouraging less overall consumption saves money, saves natural resources, and is better for our health. Not only are these steps good for our economy, they help fight climate change. These are the policies we should be enacting, not doubling down on a dead end energy strategy.
The climate silence is not only bad for the planet, it's bad for our economy.