Will climate change ever become the crucial issue in American elections?
Believe me, it’s strange to be an old man and feel like you’re living on a new planet. On November 7th, the day before the midterm elections, I took my usual afternoon walk in New York City and I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt! That was a first for me. And no wonder, since it was 76 degrees out — beautiful, but eerie. After all, that’s just not November weather.
By then, in fact, a distinctly unseasonal heat wave that, the previous week, had hit the country from the Great Plains to the Gulf Coast was spreading across the Eastern U.S. from Tallahassee, Florida (a record-tying 88 degrees) to Burlington, Vermont (a record 76 degrees). Temperatures ranged from 15 to 25 degrees above normal. And yet, in a sense, this was nothing new. The worst megadrought in 1,200 years has held the West and Southwest in its grip for what seems like eons now and has evidently been moving toward the middle of the country (with the Mississippi River becoming an increasingly dried-up mud puddle).
Meanwhile, Nicole, a rare November hurricane that formed in the Caribbean, would, sadly enough, spare Mar-a-Lago. However, a distraught Donald Trump, riding it out there (despite state evacuation orders), would react angrily to the political hurricane that clobbered Florida on November 8th when Ron DeSantis swept to a resounding victory amid chants of “two more years!” Meanwhile, thanks in part to already rising sea levels, Nicole would further erode Florida’s coastline in a telling fashion.
I know, I know, the real story last week was the changing political weather in this country: the angry Donald, Ron De-Sanctimonious, the Red Wave that proved barely a trickle; the surprising importance of abortion to the election campaign; the losses of so many Trumpian election deniers; those endless vote counts that left the Senate miraculously still in the hands of the Democrats and the House barely in those of… well, god knows who the Republicans really are anymore — all of it grabbed our attention big time and, given what’s at stake, why shouldn’t it have?
In a way, Nicole was nothing compared to the tropical storm of political news that swamped us during an election season in which so many Trumpists, including “Doc” Mehmet Oz and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, suffered losses that shocked the former president. They also left some Republicans lambasting him for the first time — Liz Cheney aside — in years, even as he announced his next presidential run.
How our political world does change every now and then (even if only sort of) to the surprise of pollsters and political commentators alike. I mean who, in recent years, would have dared predict that, in the wake of the 2022 midterm elections, the Murdoch-owned tabloid, the New York Post, would mock Donald Trump on its front page? It featured him as an egg-shaped “Trumpty Dumpty” teetering at the edge of a wall with the headline “Don (who couldn’t build a wall) had a great fall — can all the GOP’s men put the party back together again?”
And yet, sadly enough, you could also say that, for all the hoopla, in certain ways our political system doesn’t change. At least, not faintly fast enough. In case you hadn’t noticed, for example, there was one issue that couldn’t loom more ominously in this all-American world of ours, that couldn’t be more crucial to our future lives, and that was missing in action during this election season. I’m thinking, of course, about climate change, the ominous overheating of this planet thanks to the greenhouse gasses that continue to spew into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. This very year, it looks as if fossil-fuel emissions will once again rise to record levels. By the end of 2022, an estimated 36.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide (or more) will have headed for that atmosphere on a planet already feeling the heat, literally and figuratively, in a historic (or, under the circumstances, perhaps I mean a-historic) way.
Missing in Action in Election 2022
Honestly, how strange this election truly was, don’t you think? And not simply because of Donald Trump and the election-denying candidates he backed. When I consider this planet, the only one we humans have (at least as yet), I find it all too unnerving that climate change didn’t make it into the midterms in any significant, or even discernible, fashion.
I’m talking about the very planet on which the heat is increasing in an ever more striking way. Ice is melting from alpine heights to polar glaciers; rising sea levels are imperiling ever more coastal areas; previously unimaginable kinds of flooding are occurring from Pakistan to Nigeria; and record droughts have settled in across much of the northern hemisphere, while famine — actual starvation — is becoming a part of life in an increasingly parched horn of Africa. Meanwhile, more people are probably being driven from their homes and lives, not just by us humans but by nature itself, and are on the move than at any recent moment in our history.
Worse yet, we know enough — or perhaps I mean should know enough — to realize that life as we once experienced it (note the past tense!) is heading for the history books. In the worst sense imaginable, whether we care to notice or not, we all now find ourselves on a new planet. The scientists who follow this closely have been informing us of just that for years now, as has António Guterres, the head of the United Nations. Here’s the news in a nutshell: it’s only going to get precipitously (as in going off the edge of a cliff) worse, especially if humanity doesn’t take collective action in the coming years to bring the burning of fossil fuels under far greater control, while increasing the use of renewable energy sources significantly.
And all of that should help explain why, when it comes to those midterm elections, I’m left with a giant question mark that has nothing to do with Donald Trump. Given how obvious and ominous our global situation already is, why did climate change not grip American voters the way abortion did? (After all, there was a Supreme Court ruling against the Environmental Protection Agency regulating the release of greenhouse gasses, just as there was one against Roe v. Wade.)
Why was the possibility of our planet becoming ever less livable not at the top of the list of issues in the 2022 midterms? Why weren’t politicians spending their time discussing the subject? Why wasn’t it part of every stump speech, at least for the candidates who weren’t Trumpublicans?
It should be the issue of the moment, the week, the month, the year, the decade, the century, shouldn’t it? Admittedly, post-election, Nancy Pelosi did take out after Trump and crew on the issue of climate-change denial, as well she should have, but that was a rare moment indeed. And, to give him credit, Joe Biden has worked hard to pass significant climate legislation (even if, thanks in part to the war in Ukraine, his administration has also allowed fossil-fuel extraction to ramp up).
You want an election “issue”? Honestly, when you think about how an ever more overheated planet is going to affect our children and grandchildren, shouldn’t global warming have been right at the top of any list? And why wasn’t its absence considered the mystery of our times, perhaps of all times?
One much-commented-upon surprise of the midterm election season was the turnout of Generation Z voters in a non-presidential year and how significantly their votes skewed Democratic. And yes, we know from polling that Gen-Z voters did indeed have climate change on their minds in a way their elders evidently didn’t. We know that, for them, it was right up there with (or just behind) abortion, protecting democracy, and inflation. And that’s not nothing.
In fact, as Juan Cole wrote at his Informed Comment website, “According to a recent Blue Shield poll, some 75% of youth in America report that they have had panic attacks, depression, anxiety, stress, and/or feelings of being overwhelmed when considering the issue of climate change. Globally, many of these young people are even afraid to bring children into the world that is being produced by our high-carbon styles of life.”
Personally, I’m with them when it comes to anxiety. When I think about the world my children and grandchildren are now likely to inherit, it leaves me distinctly depressed, stressed, and — yes — overwhelmed. And when I think that, in 2022, global warming wasn’t a significant issue, not even for Trumpublicans to attack, those feelings only multiply.
Left in the Dust of History
I mean, forget the melting Alps in Switzerland or the melting glaciers in the Himalayas; forget the missing water supplies in parched, overheated Jordan, or the spring temperatures that soared to 120 degrees and above in India and Pakistan; ignore the 500-year record drought that engulfed Europe, drying up the Rhine and other rivers, and the soaring temperatures that, last summer, turned even China’s mighty Yangtze River into a giant mudflat; ignore the record melt of Greenland’s ice sheet this September or the coming total disappearance of summer sea ice in the Arctic (with an accompanying rise in global sea levels), and just think about a few basics in our own country, which has reportedly warmed 68% faster than the planet as a whole over the last half century. Approximately four decades ago, extreme weather disasters causing at least $1 billion in damage occurred in the United States on average once every four months. Now, it’s once every three weeks. Doesn’t that tell you something?
And what, I wonder, will it be like four decades from now when the Gen-Zers are at least somewhat closer to my age? Meanwhile, that western mega-drought continues, wildfires grow increasingly severe, coastal areas are battered ever more fiercely by storms that, crossing overheated waters, only grow ever stronger, seasons become hotter, and… but let me just stop there.
I mean, you get the idea, right? And count on one thing: someday, perhaps even in 2024, America’s elections are finally going to heat up, too — and I’m not just thinking about Humpty Trumpty or Ron DeSantis. Count on this, too: climate change on its present course ever upwards is going to become the true inflation of the future, as well as an issue, possibly the issue, in any election season. Republican weaponizing of it will end and how politicians respond to it will matter in their vote count (assuming, of course, that some version of American democracy is still in place in that perilous future of ours).
If you once rejected the very idea of climate change — yes, you Donald Trump and you Ron DeSantis! — you’ll be an object of bitter mockery and ridicule. If you supported billionaires who, flying on their own private jets, put striking amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, you’ll pay for it politically. If you urge that more coal, oil, or natural gas be produced, you won’t have a chance in any election season.
Whether we truly know it or not, whether we accept it or not, whether we paid the slightest attention to COP27, the recent U.N. climate meeting in Egypt, or not, trust me on one thing: the perilous heating of this planet is the topic that will, sooner or later, leave all others in the dust. New cold wars and hot wars will make no sense whatsoever in such a future. After all, we’re now on a tipping-point planet. Or rather, let me put it this way: either attention to climate change will leave all else in the dust or climate change itself will leave us all in the dust, and how truly sad that would be!
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