By Rene Kiss and Shannon Kelly
MI First Election
For as long as Americans have voted, there have been several presidential election cycles that seemed “the most important in all history.”
This year, though, may truly be different, if climate scientists are right.
The next candidate Americans send to the Oval Office, experts say, may also be the very last who can avert catastrophe from climate change.
“Whoever takes over that seat will have a huge effect over the actions that will be taken to help solve this issue,” said Jack Schmitt, deputy director for Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
Schmitt also sits on the board of directors for the Michigan Environmental Council and says climate change is the most depressing issue society is facing.
Unfortunately for advocates, it’s an issue that isn’t getting much airtime.
Aaron McCright, Michigan State University associate professor of sociology, attributes the lack of discussion about the topic to the complexity of it and the polarization between scientists and the general public.
“Most people don’t have those opportunities to interact with scientists,” McCright said. “So they’re left to either trust or distrust the science. And it’s much harder to get people in the general public to believe in something and trust something than it is to sow seeds of doubt and get them to distrust.”
McCright conducted a National Science Foundation study that found climate-change advocates are largely failing to influence public opinion. Climate-change foes, on the other hand, are successfully changing people’s minds – Republicans and Democrats alike – with messages denying the existence of global warming.
“We can roughly estimate that about nine to 10 percent of the American public are, what I would call, hardcore deniers,” McCright said. “And there is no amount of evidence that you could pile in front of them that’s going to convince them otherwise.”
However it’s not these deniers McCright is concerned about.
“The nine or 10 percent of deniers in the general public are not what is holding America back from taking action on climate change, it’s the folks in Congress who have failed to act for 25 years now,” McCright said. “I don’t see this particular election changing the culture of Washington.”
Jessica Wolfe, vice president of student organization MSU Greenpeace, said she doesn’t think this election will do much about climate change.
“Climate change is definitely a huge issue that’s going to affect the future,” said Wolfe. “I have noticed that within politics, Bernie Sanders is the only one who really talks about it and all he really talks about is fossil fuels.”
MSU Greenpeace is a student environmental activist group. It was founded in 2012 by students who wanted to make a sustainable change on the university’s campus.
“I got involved with Greenpeace a year ago,” Wolfe said. “I’ve watched the way the landscapes have changed, the way the skies have changed. I personally have witnessed the way things are changing and it’s very evident to me that in our lifetime I do think there is going to be massive problem.”
Wolfe isn’t the only one who says so.
Skiers and snowboarders around the world have noticed changes from global warming and say global warming affects the sport they love. Professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones is one and that’s why he started Protect Our Winters (POW) in 2007.
“After traveling around the world for years, Jeremy Jones saw snowfall levels change in many of the places he visited annually,” said POW Executive Director Chris Steinkamp. “He didn’t see anybody from the winter sports community doing anything to address climate change.”
POW is a non-profit organization involving individuals in the global winter sport community and supported by companies in the business. It is the leading climate advocacy group for the snow-sport community.
Steinkamp and the POW team have been to Washington, D.C., twice where they met with members of the U.S. House and Senate.
“We started telling people to change their light bulbs and carry reusable water bottles and other small habitual changes like that. That’s the stuff that we all need to be doing anyway. But we can’t just stop there.” Steinkamp said. “Policy legislation is what’s going to get it done.”
But when it comes to some candidates, climate change policy legislation isn’t just lacking, but the issue is being denied altogether.
Of the final five candidates that were running for president in the 2016 election – Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders – only Clinton, Sanders and Kasich have said that climate change is real, human-caused, possesses a threat to society and is reversible.
“Climate change is not science. It’s religion,” Cruz told Glenn Beck in an interview in Oct. 2015.
Republican frontrunner Trump has also said he thinks climate change and global warming is a hoax.
“When I hear Obama get up and say the biggest threat to the world today is global warming, I say, is this guy kidding? The only global warming – the only global warming I’m worried about is nuclear global warming because that’s the single biggest threat,” Trump said in March 2016.
Kasich told New Hampshire Public Radio in Nov. 2015, “I do believe there’s climate change, and I think human beings impact it. But, I also don’t know to what degree we impact it.”
Both Democrats agree climate change is a problem, but they have different approaches. At the Democratic debate in New York on April 14, global warming had its 15 minutes of fame.
Clinton said, “we should talk about it in terms of the extraordinary threats that climate change poses to our country and our world.”
And Sanders said, “You know, if we, God forbid, were attacked tomorrow, the whole country would rise up and say we got an enemy out there and we got to do something about it. That was what 9/11 was about. We have an enemy out there, and that enemy is going to cause drought and floods and extreme weather disturbances.”
When it comes to policy, Clinton said she’ll stay the course set by the Obama administration, particularly on the Paris climate agreement, adopted by the U.N. on Dec. 12, 2015, and power plant regulations.
But Sanders wants to think bigger.
“This is a difference between understanding that we have a crisis of historical consequence here,” he said. “Incrementalism and those little steps are not enough. Not right now. Not on climate change.”
Wolfe said Sanders’ incentive for including climate change policy in his campaign is to appeal to the youth.
“His main goal is to draw the youth in and I think that climate change is something that the youth is very involved in more so than older generations,” Wolfe said.
According to a poll by Benenson Strategy Group, 79 percent of voters 35 or younger are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports taking action on climate change.
Arguments from those who oppose action also fall flat with young voters, who are far more likely to say the country has a moral obligation to act than to believe action is too expensive and unnecessary.
The members of POW said this can be attributed to educating students about the environment and global warming.
“Over the last year, we brought ski and snowboard athletes like Gretchen Bleiler, Ingrid Backstrom and Nick Martini into schools to speak to about 15,000 students all across the country,” Steinkamp said. “When those guys talk to students, they really start to listen.”
City of East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows said the fight against climate change has already begun at the city level.
“Cities have the opportunity to focus on the issue as a tax-savings measure and use that to gain support for climate change policies even among the doubters in the population,” Meadows said.
He said university communities such as East Lansing and Ann Arbor “tend to embrace scientific evidence, not run from it.”
Meadows began his public service in 1989 when he was named to the East Lansing Commission on Environment, on which he served until 1994. He is also the Chair of the Sierra Club Political Committee for the Central Michigan Group, a grassroots environmental organization.
“The Sierra Club has, as one of its basic objectives, the promotion of legislation to fight climate change,” Meadows said.
Comparative culture and policy sophomore Karen Troxell said climate change means a lot to her.
“It’s a reason to vote a certain way. I think it’s something that’s overlooked by a lot of people, and it is very real, I mean science has proven it,” she said.
Troxell is also a member of MSU Greenpeace and said it is going to take a lot of people to become aware and more passionate about the environment for there to be any real change.
“That kind of forces their congressmen to take them seriously and realize that something is happening and we do need to make changes,” she said. “We need to steer our country this way.”
A recent study by John Cook for the Environmental Research Letters confirmed that 97 percent of climate scientists agree climate change is real and human-caused. 2014 was the warmest year in recorded history, and 2015 broke that record. Some argue that’s what makes the 2016 election one of the most important in decades.
“I absolutely think we can win this fight,” Steinkamp said. “We’re taking huge steps forward and I absolutely believe that’s within our reach.”