One issue in the 2014 elections that has already tripped up a number of significant candidates is climate change.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellTrump flirts with Dems for Cabinet Lawmakers eye early exit from Washington Confirm Scott Palk for the Western District of Oklahoma MORE (R-Ky.) has employed the well-worn “I’m not a scientist” rejoinder to questions about his views on the human contribution to climate change. But lack of candor on this issue is not a partisan problem: McConnell’s opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes (D), though acknowledging man-made climate change, has seemed reluctant to back any aggressive action to tackle it.
Campaigns fueled by thirty-second soundbites are always disappointing. In an ideal world, the questions “Do you believe in global warming?” or “Do you think human beings cause climate change?” would be followed up by more fleshed-out discussion of the consequences.
With that in mind, let us imagine a scenario in which you can pin down the candidate of your choice and hold their attention for four questions about their views and prospective policies for fighting climate change.
1. Why does it matter that you are not a subject matter expert on climate change, given you regularly make legislative decisions on other topics on which you are not similarly educated?
This question gets to the heart of the problem with the “I’m not a scientist” response—that the apparent complexity of an issue to be legislated is a reason not to talk about it publicly. Yet, very few politicians at the national level demur on providing answers about what to do against ISIS on the basis that they lack a PhD in international relations, or avoid responding to questions about how to make the tax system fairer by saying they are not economists or accountants.
2. U.S. military and intelligence analysts have repeatedly said that the US needs to plan for a future world that could be made substantially more unstable by climate change. What is your response to this analysis?
The Department of Defense and Office of the Director of National Intelligence report a business-as-usual approach to fighting climate change, is likely to result in a world of increased tension over dwindling resources, which is a potential contributing factor to intra- and inter-state violence.
To dismiss these concerns as overblown would suggest a serious distrust of intelligence analysts. To accept those conclusions, conversely, suggests a need for thinking about what that means for U.S. foreign policy priorities, a debate which has been noticeably absent from the national discussion on climate change so far.
3. Do you think poorer countries, like India should be allowed some leeway to grow their economies and in doing so, reduce poverty rates, as part of a longer-term commitment to transition to lower-carbon electricity generation?
Critics of aggressive American action correctly note that what we do within our borders will not be as consequential as action by the Chinese and Indians and other developing world countries. The challenge is that developing countries facing the imperative of poverty reduction might be unwilling to trade hydrocarbon-fueled economic growth for emissions cuts.
A “yes” answer to the overall question must inevitably be followed by a strategy to get the developing world to transition as quickly as possible, including currently unpopular provisions for transfers of funding and technology from the developed to the developing world. Sussing out what else American politicians may be willing to do (if anything) is a critical part of understanding our future role in actually implementing solutions to climate change.
4. Would you support major funding for the accelerated construction of nuclear power-plants both here and abroad, if they were supplanting dirtier sources of electricity generation?
This question addresses some fissures within the green movement itself over how to prioritize de-carbonization. While solar panels and wind turbines are justifiably garnering headlines for their rapid decline in cost and rapid deployment worldwide, there are still open questions as to whether or not they can replace the base-load power generation provided by coal and natural gas.
As much as I—and other climate-change-conscious-voters—would love it if this were not a pressing and potentially catastrophic issue, that’s not the case. Climate change is coming. Asking candidates (as well as our elected representatives) serious questions about how they plan to tackle it is a duty not only to ourselves, but to future generations of Americans.
Bhatiya is a policy associate at The Century Foundation, where he works on issues related to U.S. foreign policy, with a specific focus on South Asia and climate change.