Column: The most important issue this election forgot

A hurricane floods two battleground states mere weeks before a Presidential election; its fury stoked by ocean waters warmed in part by climate change. Seems like a recipe for a question or two about the greatest environmental challenge faced by the U.S., an issue that starkly divides the candidates and their parties, no? Not in 2016, even when Hurricane Matthew wreaked havoc in North Carolina, Florida and other places in the South less than 48 hours before a televised debate.

In the debates and the vast majority of the coverage of this historic election, climate change has come up empty. The pattern echoes the 2012 election, which saw few climate questions despite huge differences between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on what to do about global warming as well as Romney’s apparent flip-flop on the issue, usually sure bait for a television journalist.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could not differ more on climate change. Trump has tweeted that it is a hoax dreamed up by the Chinese to hamper U.S. business, an idea perhaps reinforced by China’s main climate negotiator calling on him to uphold the terms of the Paris Agreement if elected. Though he later called the tweet a joke, Trump’s energy policy certainly treats climate change as a hoax.

Trump has pledged, via his platform, to repudiate the Paris Agreement, roll back the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan for cutting pollution from U.S. coal-burning power plants and even attempt to overturn (somehow) the Supreme Court ruling that allows the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide as pollution. He would also promote all-out production of U.S. natural gas, oil and, most worryingly from a climate perspective, coal. That would effectively end U.S. efforts to restrain global warming and invite climate catastrophe.

A building and street signs are reflected in flood waters as the Tar River rises to dangerous levels in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, in Tarboro, North Carolina on October 13, 2016. Photo by Jonathan Drake/REUTERS

A building and street signs are reflected in flood waters as the Tar River rises to dangerous levels in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, in Tarboro, North Carolina on October 13, 2016. Photo by Jonathan Drake/REUTERS

On the other side is Hillary Clinton, who managed to mention climate change a few times in the debates, but on her own, unprompted by any probing question from the moderators. In one instance, she was helped by a single question about energy policy from an employee of a coal-fired power plant. But Ken Bone’s red sweater garnered more attention than his question about energy policies that could decide the long-term fate of civilization.

Clinton’s energy plan is a continuation of the Obama administration’s all-of-the-above strategy. That means there are tough questions here too, such as: Is this enough to prevent the worst of global warming? How do you plan to convince Congress to fund your clean energy proposal? And how can the U.S. keep burning natural gas in a world that needs to reach zero emissions of greenhouse gas as fast as possible?

Our incessant burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and a taste for meat has changed the very air we breathe. Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have now surpassed 400 parts-per-million, the highest levels in at least 800,000 years—higher than that breathed at any point by Homo sapiens. It’s enough CO2 to have raised average temperatures by a full degree Celsius. More warming is already in store, and the Arctic is in full meltdown, with the potential for the end of summer sea ice in our lifetimes, among other impacts. These changes to the world will show up in the long-term rock record, a big part of the reason why some geologists say we now live in a new epoch known as the Anthropocene.

The question of climate change is what kind of world do we want to live in and leave to our children? Trump seems willing to risk climate catastrophe to win the presidency. Clinton would do more to combat climate change but perhaps not enough to save coastal cities in the long run. To ensure that America can be great in the future, helping the world combat climate change should be among the top priorities for any Commander in Chief, as even the Department of Defense has suggested.

Global warming is an issue that journalists should have used to put these candidates on the hot seat. Its omission is a failure of journalism that is almost criminally irresponsible.