Our candidates' tiger problem
Politicians are ignoring the earth's greatest challenge. Can we force them to confront it?
There are better ways to solve pressing problems than to run away from them. (Photo by Mike Marrah on Unsplash)
Here’s one of those chicken-or-egg questions: Do candidates campaign on issues that matter to people, or do we only grow devoted to viewpoints that politicians have banged into our heads incessantly? And if voters don’t care about an issue enough to weigh it as they cast a ballot, should a politician care much about it?
If you’d rather talk about something other than politics just now — like sports, maybe — I understand. So be patient, please; we will soon get to football and more. But hold that thought just now, because there’s a serious question at hand. We’re trying to figure out why perhaps the greatest challenge facing America is hardly being discussed as campaigns hit the homestretch. Are the candidates to blame, or is it us?
It’s not that people running for important offices aren’t talking about important things, for the most part: the economy and inflation, of course, as well as abortion, crime, education, immigration and healthcare. But there’s a topic arguably more consequential than all those that you barely hear candidates mentioning in 2022.
Of course, we’re talking about climate change. Within decades, it will almost surely cause unprecedented global chaos, according to a new report — that is, unless governments, including ours, take some pretty radical steps right away. Wouldn’t you like to know whether your candidate for Congress has any plan to help us avoid drought, flooding, famine and the displacement of millions of people?
Sure, some candidates will at least respond to questions about the impending climate disaster. But if you track Republican campaign ads, you won’t hear a whisper on the topic, though you might conclude that Joe Biden is a tool of Vladimir Putin — or maybe Vladimir Lenin, or perhaps Vlad the Impaler. Democrats aren’t as fact-averse, but their ads are similarly silent on climate change; they’re focused on abortion rights.
A president’s priorities are fair game for commentary in a mid-term election, of course, and it is a big deal, absolutely, that a far-right Supreme Court majority threw out an established constitutional right that a vast majority of Americans support. But do you suppose the nation’s founders imagined that elections would be waged without attention to the great issues facing the country?
Here's the reality: Nations aren’t meeting their promises from the Glasgow summit last year to cut carbon pollution, meaning we’re heading toward catastrophic warming, according to a United Nations report released last week.1 The world’s leading scientists have concluded that we almost certainly face, in the words of the U.N. secretary general, “unprecedented heatwaves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages and the extinction of a million species of plants and animals.” That will produce mass migration to avoid starvation, with ensuing political and economic chaos.
And where are candidates campaigning on those issues? Not in the United States of America. Republicans’ ad buys since Labor Day, the Washington Post reports, have focused mainly on taxes and inflation, as well as crime and, of course, Joe Biden (presidents are almost always unpopular in the middle of their first term). Democrats’ ads have stressed the party’s commitment to abortion rights and, as a second line of attack, have questioned the character of Republican candidates.2
Candidates seem to feel no pressure to confront the biggest issues, largely because voters aren’t demanding it these days. You have to wonder what voters in the 2002 mid-term election might have thought of a congressional candidate who didn’t mention the threat of the extremists who attacked America on 9/11, or how a candidate in 1970 could have sidestepped the Vietnam war, or even, in 1942, the ongoing fight against the Axis powers. Are we more easily distracted than voters used to be, or more vulnerable to clever ad manipulation that can turn our attention away from crises at our doorstep?
Humans have the capacity for long-term thinking, and science now enables us to predict at least some of the future with a good degree of certainty. Perhaps the reason nobody wants to talk about the future is precisely because we now can grasp how daunting it seems. Or maybe the mismatch between campaigns and crisis results from a human trait that the futurist Ari Wallach calls “short-termism” — that is, our tendency to focus on what’s happening right now.
Wallach notes that our evolutionary predecessors had reason to focus on the short-term, because it was how they survived if, say, they were being chased by a beast. That tendency remains deeply imbedded in humans, and it’s emotionally pleasing to exercise it. “We want to feel stable. So we seek whatever ultra-short-term fixes will provide that,” Wallach has written. “We run from the tiger instead of stopping to read the book What to Do When Chased by a Tiger.”3
Yet we ought to expect our leaders to exercise exactly that kind of longer-term thinking — that is, to elevate us above our immediate fears. Instead, candidates seem eager to heighten those fears, so they can then promise vaguely to fix whatever they’ve encouraged us to be afraid of.
Understandably, of course, candidates must focus on issues that matter to voters, and in the most recent New York Times/Siena poll, 44 percent of likely voters said the economy and inflation were the biggest issues that would determine their vote. That same poll found that only 3 percent of likely voters consider climate change the most important issue facing the country today.4
You can’t be cavalier about the fact that rising prices are making life tougher for a lot of Americans. It’s not that voters shouldn’t worry about the economy, nor should we expect politicians to ignore that.
But governments deal with economic travails of this sort all the time. And the economy is still strong: Unemployment is low, corporate profits are high and the nation’s GDP — the broadest measure of economic activity — grew from July through September. In fact, since inflation is lower in the U.S. than in other advanced economies, you might conclude that our leaders have handled the global economic headwinds pretty well.
But a campaign focusing on climate change would put voters in the mind of unwelcome outcomes, since it’s a crisis without an easy fix. So candidates avoid the topic. And the declining impact of mainstream journalism means there are fewer instances of holding candidates to account for skipping tough issues.
If candidates won’t step forward to address the issue, maybe voters can be emboldened to force them if we can make citizens care more about the issue themselves. We need to find a way to make the impending climate catastrophe as important as, say, the price of gas and groceries. That’s where sports might come in, finally.
Americans care for nothing as much as they do televised games: TV networks and technology firms have agreed to pay the NFL $113 billion for the right to show football games through 2033, not to mention college football, professional basketball, hockey, baseball and every other kind of competition you can name.5 Maybe to convince voters that climate change is real, candidates ought to explain how it might hurt football.
Consider this: The average temperature in September at the home field of the Miami Dolphins is 82 degrees Farenheit. That makes playing early-season games tough there already. What will happen when Miami is so much hotter, and the hurricane season extends through football season?
Or look at these facts: The average January temperature at Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers, is now 19. At the Seattle Seahawks’ home stadium, it rains more than 7 inches on average in November, and the Buffalo Bills can expect 60 inches of snow each January at their home stadium. We know that climate change is making weather more extreme; it won’t be long before it will be too hot for football in Florida, too cold in Wisconsin and — wait, we almost forgot about the wind in Chicago. If every NFL city confronts a climate crisis, would Congress be compelled to act?6
The outlook is worse for so-called winter sports, like Olympic tobogganing and snowboarding. Climate scientists at the University of Waterloo in Ontario recently published research into how climate change is affecting the 21 places around the world that have hosted the Winter Olympics. They found that by the middle of this century, only four of those 21 host cities will still have winter conditions that could support the outdoor Olympic sports, and by 2100, only one city — Sapporo, Japan — will still have a climate that can produce fair and safe conditions.7
Of course, there will be climate change consequences a lot greater than slushy Olympic slopes and heat-stroked football players. But if the awful scenarios scientists project aren’t compelling today’s candidates to step forward and take the lead on arguably the greatest danger we confront, people who care about the climate crisis will need to find a way to motivate their fellow voters to care — so that candidates will follow.
Or, of course, we could support only candidates who show the capacity to lay aside short-termism. Either way, it’s past time for voters to demand that the people we elect stop just running from the tiger. We can’t wait any longer for action on the most important issue of our time.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Fort Collins, Colo. (Fort Collins Coloradoan, coloradoan.com)
Jacksonville, Fla. (Florida Times-Union, jacksonville.com)
Marshfield, Mass. (The Patriot Ledger, patriotledger.com)
Reno, Nev. (Reno Gazette Journal, rgj.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Potential election worker gets disinformation call
A voter who was on the verge of becoming an election worker in Larimer County got a fake call from a fake phone number that claimed, inaccurately, that election workers must be vaccinated against Covid. The Coloradoan’s Sandy Swanson reports that the call came from a non-working number in California, but that it had been “spoofed” to look like a call from the local county clerk. The county clerk said she also was eager to dispel the spreading disinformation that an absentee or early vote wouldn’t be properly counted. “That’s just hogwash,” she said.
Racist chat rocks sheriff’s gang unit
A sergeant in the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office gang unit is under investigation for social media posts that apparently denigrate racial minorities and LGBTQ people. Now reporting by Anne Schindler in the Florida Times-Union reveals that the sergeant was engaged in a group chat two years ago that involved language so racist that it prompted a Black officer to quit the unit. The exchange involved an NFL ceremony memorializing a Florida A&M student who was killed by officers during a traffic stop. A former officer said the seargeant, whose nickname is “Sofa,” is known for hassling Black youth in the community.
Sharks detected off beach — and they’re here to stay
Two great white sharks were detected off a beach near Quincy, Mass., according to reporting by Peter Blandino in The Patriot Ledger, and officials say that beachgoers need to get used to the threat. The coastal area south of Boston has seen an increase in the number of gray seals, and that means sharks will be there to hunt. “If you’re at the beach and there are seals there, it's probably best to move out of the water or to a different area away from the seals.,” the local harbormaster suggested.
Millions sought to help students’ educational recovery
Last year, the Nevada state legislature authorized $200 million for school districts to help students recover academically from the Covid shutdown. According to Kristin Oh in the Reno Gazette Journal, the Washoe County schools are hoping to win $20 million of that for hard-hit students. The school superintendent said that the money couldn’t be used for higher teacher pay, however — one of the school system’s priorities — because it’s a one-shot offer from the state. The deputy superintendent called it “much needed, targeted support.”
Thanks for reading The Upstate American this week, and for joining me on "*our common ground, as we try to understand what’s going on in our great country.