The quality of the climate change discussion so far during the general election has been lackluster, to say the least.
The first presidential debate did not include a question on climate. The single brief discussion of the issue came up when Hillary Clinton attacked Donald Trump for having called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. Trump denied it, even though he did, in fact, say that on Twitter in 2012, blasting it out to literally millions of followers.
Grist’s Emma Merchant recently crunched the numbers on how frequently climate change has been discussed in the debates of the past five presidential election cycles (2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016).
She found that, out of 1,500 minutes of presidential and vice-presidential debate, climate change got a paltry 37 minutes of discussion. In 2012, of course, climate change got a whopping zero minutes of debate time.
This virtual blackout of climate change from the debates prompted environmental groups to petition the debate moderators Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper to include a climate change question in last night’s debate. I road tripped up to St. Louis to join one of those groups, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (YECA).
YECA was formed in 2012, the year of campaign climate silence, and had a presence at the 2012 presidential debate at Hofstra. According to Kyle Meyard-Schaap, YECA’s National Organizer and spokesperson, there was a need for an organization that could be a home and a platform for young evangelicals “who don’t want to check their faith or their brain at the door on climate.”
YECA has since mobilized its members to advocate on climate change on their campuses, within their faith communities, and by pushing elected officials. On campuses, they support a fellows program that helps undergraduate leaders develop specific projects that include both education and advocacy around climate change.
One climate leadership fellow I spoke to, Lindsay Mouw, is a senior at Dordt College, a small Christian college in Sioux Center, Iowa that’s affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church in North America. She’s spent 2016 bird-dogging presidential candidates on climate change during the Iowa caucuses and working to increase recycling on her campus, with some of the savings (and matching funds from supporters) going toward the organization One Body One Hope, a local non-profit that works with mission homes and sister churches in Monrova, Liberia. The money will be used to install solar panels on a local orphanage there.
Within the evangelical community, YECA has pushed its elders to be more vocal on climate change. They were one of several groups and stakeholders that pushed for the National Association of Evangelicals board of directors to speak up on climate change, which it did by releasing a statement last October. And on policy, they’ve recently pushed for the ratification of the Paris agreement and for more money for the Green Climate Fund.
A group of sixteen YECA members and supporters made the trek to Washington University in St. Louis for the second debate. In a designated Public Expression Zone YECA’s national spokesman, Kyle Meyard-Schaap, conveyed both urgency and hope in his speech to the crowd. He stated in no uncertain terms: “climate change is the greatest moral challenge of our time.” He also laid out an audacious and inspiring vision of the potential of the climate movement for moral transformation:
“If we can find the compassion to respond to climate impacts around the world with empathy and action, we could spark a movement of kinship and solidarity across the globe the likes of which the world has never seen.”
Just before a screening of the debate, YECA members gathered to hold a climate vigil.
They took turns offering up their own prayers and petitions:
“Protect those who are most vulnerable.”
“I pray that we might learn courage: what it means to sacrifice.”
“We pray for the rest of this election season- may the needs of the earth and the poor around the world rise to the surface.”
And, at the buzzer: a climate question was almost asked, but not quite.
An audience member asked the candidates, “What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs, while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?”
Mr. Trump began by attacking the EPA ( which he’s vowed to completely eliminate) and touting the benefits of ‘clean coal’: “There is a thing called clean coal. Coal will last for 1,000 years in this country.”
It is true that some of the carbon dioxide released by burning coal will last in the atmosphere for one thousand years. But so-called ‘clean coal’ technology is nowhere near being commercially viable at present — the sole U.S. pilot project plant in Mississippi is two years behind schedule and billions over budget.
Clinton’s answer called climate change “a serious problem,” advocated for moving toward more clean, renewable energy as quickly as we can,” and talked about the importance of a just economic transition for workers in coal country (the full details of her plan on that issue can be found here).
But, Clinton also touted natural gas as “a bridge fuel,” maintaining a position that’s sure to disappoint many climate activists (for example, author and 350.org founder Bill McKibben laid out his case against natural gas as a bridge fuel in full earlier this year in an article for The Nation).
There was much more detail on energy policy in this debate than in the first, and the inclusion of an environmental question could arguably be counted as a victory. But ultimately, climate change itself got little to no discussion in this debate (a passing mention from Hillary Clinton). So for Christians advocating for climate justice, for a response that is both equitable and commensurate to the challenge, the struggle continues.