Blog

Has Sustainability Been Absent from the 2016 Presidential Election?

 
Picture of Brandon Greenblatt
Has Sustainability Been Absent from the 2016 Presidential Election?
by Brandon Greenblatt - Friday, 19 August 2016, 1:47 PM
 
 Brandon Greenblatt // 29 January 2016 //  #Election2016 #GoingGreen

As the 2016 Presidential Race intensifies in the United States, now is an opportune time to examine the role that the environment and sustainability have played in the election thus far. 

It’s important to recognize that this election cycle has been different from most presidential elections in the past, simply because there have been so many candidates running for office!  Former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders are currently seeking a nomination from the Democratic Party.  Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Ohio Governor John Kasich, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, and businessman Donald Trump are all competing for the Republican Party nomination.  With just less than nine months until the general election, that’s certainly a long list of candidates to choose from!

Republican Candidates Onstage at a DebateFrom my perspective as a university student, this immense volume of candidates has had one significant impact on the election cycle thus far.  More so than other presidential elections in recent years, any candidate who considers entry into this race is immediately forced to distinguish him/herself from the rest of the field.  With such a large field of competitors, it is incumbent upon each candidate to prove to the American people why he/she is the absolute best choice for the party’s nomination and, later on, to be president.  A number of candidates have distinguished themselves well: Bernie Sanders touts his commitment to fighting income inequality, while Donald Trump focuses on combatting illegal immigration and reforming the debt crisis, while Chris Christie emphasizes his expertise on homeland security issues.

To a large extent, the political, economic, and social issues of this race have largely been those defined by the candidates’ areas of expertise.  Donald Trump frequently credits himself with sparking the discussion on illegal immigration, stating that it wouldn’t have become a centerpiece of this race unless he had called for serious reform.  Bernie Sanders has galvanized America’s young adults with calls for tax reform and regulation of Wall Street that will better protect those entering the nation’s workforce.  Unlike in previous years, candidates have actually been forced into a thoughtful discussion on issues of poverty and income inequality.  Unfortunately, by my personal perception of media attention devoted to the 2016 election and the public statements that candidates have made, no candidate has demonstrated particular expertise on – or extended engagement with – issues of environmental and energy policy, and therefore sustainability has yet to enter into the conversation.  

»Unfortunately, by my personal perception of media attention devoted to the 2016 election and the public statements that candidates have made, no candidate has demonstrated particular expertise on – or extended engagement with – issues of environmental and energy policy.«

Sure, the traditional debates have resurfaced, from concerns about the Keystone XL pipeline to a need to establish energy independence as a pivot away from Middle Eastern oil.  Candidates have expressed a general awareness that we need to reduce carbon emissions, develop alternative forms of energy, and create sustainable infrastructure that spurs economic development.  Martin O’Malley has framed the global warming debate as a moral issue and as the biggest concern for young voters, and Hilary Clinton has called for increases in solar energy capacity.  John Kasich and Carly Fiorina have exhibited moderate stances on climate change, acknowledging its anthropogenic nature but simultaneously prioritizing economic concerns over an expensive energy transition.  Ted Cruz, in contrast, has accused scientists and politicians of distorting scientific evidence and falsely inventing the concept of climate change.  You can read a brief summary of each candidate’s position on climate change here.

»Candidates have expressed a general awareness that we need to reduce carbon emissions, develop alternative forms of energy, and create sustainable infrastructure that spurs economic development.«

For the most part, however, climate change has not been a significant focus of this year’s presidential race.  With the exception of COP21, which sparked interest in international climate change negotiations and the United States’ role as a global power, many of this year’s news events have prompted candidates to focus on domestic issues.  Recent crises, such as the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, California and a spike in gun violence, have caused the American electorate, presidential candidates, and the news media to focus more on topics such as immigration, gun control, and homeland security.  While those concerns are absolutely valid and an incredibly important part of public discourse, by my estimation this year’s presidential race has focused too little on climate change.  

Within the next few weeks, Americans will begin to cast their ballots in a series of primary elections that will help to narrow down the Democratic and Republican fields.  The Iowa Caucus will occur on Monday, February 1st while the New Hampshire primary elections are slated for Tuesday, February 9th.  Voters will use these primaries to solidify their preferences for the November presidential election, but I also think that they present a fantastic opportunity for voters to start voicing this issues that really matter to them.  If voters demand that we make environmental awareness and sustainability a centerpiece of this upcoming election, candidates will be forced to outline more comprehensive policy plans.  Voters can then develop a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the candidates available for election, and then they can truly make sustainability an issue of focus for the next presidential administration.  Only with a greater public impetus to start the conversation can we truly hope to go green.

 


Brandon Greenblatt is a student majoring in International Affairs and studying German at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and originally from Matthews, North Carolina. Brandon is no stranger to writing and publishing as the editor of the Western Europe section of The Caravel, Georgetown's international affairs newspaper.