Climate is a 'kids' table' issue for GOP

Story highlights

  • John Sutter: Climate change is treated as a sideshow in American politics
  • Fox News didn't ask the top 10 GOP presidential candidates about it

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(CNN)Fox News hosted two GOP debates Thursday night.

I'm sure you saw how it worked: There was one prime-time debate for the top 10 candidates -- the ones people actually support in the polls. And a few hours earlier, a second "kids' table" debate for the seven randoms who are barely eking out a place in the polls.
The kids' table got asked about climate change.
    The "adults" did not.
    As someone who thinks climate change is one of the most important issues of our time, I find that hugely disappointing. But it's also entirely fitting. Climate change is real, and we're causing it. It threatens our economy, our safety, our health. It puts large chunks of species at risk for extinction and could drown entire island nations. It's also an enormous economic opportunity -- and a chance for innovation, as we figure out the smartest and most cost-effective way to move away from fossil fuels like coal and oil and toward clean, renewable sources like solar power and wind.
    But we Americans, especially many conservative Americans, don't want to talk about it.
    Or when we do, we relegate it to a sideshow.
    We make fun of it -- who hasn't wished for global warming when it's cold outside? -- or, more often, we try really hard to make it seem to be no big deal. The climate's changed before, right? What's the harm in a couple of degrees of warming?
    The GOP is particularly bad about this, sure. According to an analysis by Salon, only two or three of the top 10 Republicans (Chris Christie and John Kasich, and maybe Jeb Bush, depending on the day) admit that the scientists are at least sort of right, and humans are contributing to climate change.
    It's deplorable that all 10 don't "believe" the science. Their anti-climate rhetoric helps spread misinformation. There is a serious dearth of thoughtful, conservative and religious leadership on climate change in this country.
    But it's not just about the politicians and pundits. It's all of us.
    In July, I spent a week in Woodward County, Oklahoma, which, statistically, is one of the most climate-skeptical places in the United States. And by most skeptical I mean 30% of people there are estimated to say global warming isn't happening. A clear minority. But the confusion about this issue is much, much broader than that third of the population. I met several people who never -- never -- had had a real-live-out-loud conversation about climate change until I asked.
    That was shocking to me, but it's actually quite normal everywhere in this county, not just in Woodward. Nearly three-quarters of Americans (74%) say they "rarely" or "never" talk to their family and friends about climate change, according a survey released in March by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. That's up from 60% in 2008. That's means we're talking even less about this now -- as the issue becomes more urgent -- than we were before it became so highly politicized.
    That has to change, and it should start with us. Climate change must become part of the national conversation. Real people -- you and me -- must demand that presidential candidates come out with firm, clear stances on whether they "believe" what now is unequivocal climate science -- and, importantly, what they plan to do about it. Because doing business as usual isn't going to cut it.
    Weather always will be out of our control, but we know that we're contributing to massive changes in the way the climate operates, and that that will have serious consequences. It's negligent not to act.
    And here's the surprising thing: Americans pretty much agree about that. Seventy percent of Americans support "setting strict carbon dioxide emission limits on existing coal-fired plants to reduce global warming and improve public health," according to the Yale survey. Seventy-five percent support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Seventy-nine percent support funding for renewable energy. (When can you get nearly 80% of Americans to agree on anything?)
    Climate change isn't getting the adult-table attention it deserves
    I'll give some props to Fox for asking about climate change at its 5 p.m. debate.
    Listen, though, to how the question was framed.
    "You worked with Democrats and President Obama when it came to climate change -- something you know is extremely unpopular with conservative Republicans," Fox's Bill Hemmer asked U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is one of the only Republican candidates on record as saying that climate change is real and we're causing it by burning fossil fuels.
    "How can they trust you based on that record?"
    (In other words: How can we trust the guy who at least listens to climate scientists?)
    "You can trust me to do the following," Graham said. "That when I get on the stage with Hillary Clinton, we won't be debating about the science. We will be debating about the solutions. In her world, cap-and-trade would dominate. That will destroy the economy in the name of helping the environment. In my world, we would focus on energy independence and a clean environment."
    That's a debate worth having.
    Eventually, maybe it'll happen in prime time.