Amid concerns about Donald Trump’s misogyny and Hillary Clinton’s emails, this year’s presidential campaign and debates have devolved into an endless string of superficial soundbites. Questions of “character” take center stage, as meaningful discussions of policy differences are all but invisible.
Take the most glaring topic that is missing in action from the 2016 U.S. presidential race – climate change. The candidates almost never mention it. Reporters and debate moderators rarely ask about it. Supporters of candidates usually don’t mention it as a prominent reason for their support.
Donald Trump has dismissed climate change as a Chinese conspiracy, Hillary Clinton has said that it is real and serious but then almost never mentions it again, Jill Stein takes it seriously but few take her seriously, and Gary Johnson has told us not to worry since the earth will be aflame in a few billion years anyway. But that’s the extent of the “discussion.” Meanwhile, major media ignores it so that they can concentrate on soap opera-like spectacles.
The most critical issue facing life on earth is all but forgotten.
This absence is even more baffling given that the U.S. Department of Defense released a report in 2015 that declared global climate change to be a top threat to national and world security. The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has been issuing warning reports for years. Even the National Association of Insurance Commissioners has recognized the dire consequences of climate change on the insurance business.
If we want to have a meaningful discussion about character, then we should see the connection between the resounding silence on climate change and what it says about our national character. It is not just our candidates and media, but all of us, who seem willing to ignore the long-term, enduring issues that really matter. And our forgetting is other people’s suffering.
Strangely, this myopia seems to be a distinctly American trait not shared by other people around the world. Consider, for example, the community of Saipu, Nepal which we visited in July to collect stories of post-earthquake conditions from subsistence farmers. Devastated by the earthquakes in spring of 2015, most residents were still living in temporary shelters constructed out of bamboo and scrap wood. Substantial relief was non-existent. Fourteen months after the quakes, people struggled with whatever grace and humor they could manage to regain some semblance of normal life. Nevertheless, the rhythm of life was disrupted and many spoke solemnly about a loss of human dignity that came with the suffering of their new living conditions.
If anyone might have the right to ignore something as abstract and global as climate change, it would be these people striving to recover from the disaster right in front of them. However, their stories were always interwoven with stories of even bigger concerns. Most prominent of these was global climate change.
For the past half dozen or more years, the weather patterns in Nepal have become more and more erratic. Glaciers are receding, snow is melting earlier, monsoon rains are less predictable, and too much or too little rain disrupts traditional farming patterns. For a country of farmers, the nation-wide consequences are dire. Recently, the United Nations designated Nepal as one of 34 nations, mostly in Africa, experiencing serious food insecurity due to climate factors.
During the month that we were there, Saipu farms should have been nurtured by constant monsoon rains. Instead, the muggy skies produced only brief afternoon showers. When we suggested that the monsoon might still arrive, the reply was always something like, “Yes, but every hour that it doesn’t is a disaster.”
Farmers in Saipu have intimate long-term knowledge about climate variations. Their observation that the disruption of weather patterns is due to global climate change is not speculation, nor is their knowledge of the ultimate source of the problem. As one man told us as he stood watch over his herd of goats and cows, “The people who are causing climate change are killing us.”
The intentional irony of this statement is apparent. Located in the midst of what some scientists have called “the third pole” of the earth – the Himalayas – Nepal and its people have nothing to do with the causes of climate change. Yet, this small country and its inhabitants are a primary recipient of the disaster created by the excesses of the industrialized world.
Climate change was discussed across Nepal, among everyone from subsistence farmers to members of Parliament. The contrast with the silence in the U.S. was startling.
This silence during the presidential campaign says a lot about the character of our country. While we enjoy the largess of the global system, we ignore the consequences of our opulence. To the people of Saipu and other marginalized regions of the world that silence is deafening.
Dinesh Paudel, Assistant Professor of Sustainable Development, Appalachian State University.
Gregory Reck, Professor of Anthropology, Appalachian State University.