What the Election Means for the Environment – and for Us

To say that we’re tired of hearing about the 2016 election would be an understatement. It’s pretty much impossible to open any newspaper, magazine or blog site without being blasted by fresh Clinton and Trump one-liners from the campaign trail. But in all the election talk, we’ve spent far too little time talking about what will happen after the election.

Come January 2017, one of the two major candidates (I assume) is going to put his or her hand on a Bible and swear the Oath of Office, at which point he or she will be the new President of the United States. And then… what next?

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When it comes to environmental policies, which were discussed in detail exactly zero times in three presidential and one vice-presidential debate, the answer to what next? is anyone’s guess. Would a (new) President Clinton or President Trump carry on President Obama’s commitment to protecting public lands, which led the New York Times to dub him a “21st century Theodore Roosevelt”? What other steps would the new President take to stem the loss of biodiversity, which could be just as important as climate change in shaping our future planet? How about confronting the massive subsidies we put on corn, wheat and soy, which is one reason that America wastes more food than almost any other country on Earth?

To her credit, Clinton has at least referenced a few of these critical issues on the campaign trail. She has called to “keep public lands public,” and attests that “conserving biodiversity is essential to maintaining our quality of life.” But neither she nor Trump have spent any significant time talking about how, as President, they would pursue environmental goals.

Maybe that’s our fault. Environmental concerns consistently rank low on voter priority surveys. In a Pew Research Center survey this summer, the environment didn’t even crack the top ten issues on voters’ minds when heading to the polls. If we want the issues we care about most to get airtime on the debate floor, we first need to do a much better job of getting our stories out in the media, and showing the rest of the country why they should care too.

Last week, there actually was a presidential policy debate that featured one environmental issue front and center – but Hillary and the Donald were nowhere to be seen. The debaters: Trevor Houser, energy advisor to the Clinton campaign, and Congressman Kevin Cramer (R-ND), energy advisor to the Trump campaign. The topic: climate change and energy policy.

Of course, since the debate didn’t feature any candidate-on-candidate fireworks, it was only covered by wonky policy websites and industry news outlets.

The debate touched on the Paris Climate Agreement: the Clinton campaign supports it, while Cramer called it “one more bad trade deal.” It hit on air pollution: Cramer said that EPA should get back to its “core mission” of promoting clean air and water, but later said that EPA regulations like the Clean Power Plan will be much too costly for industry. It brought up nuclear power, too: in rare agreement, both campaigns support it as an important source of carbon-free electricity. There weren’t any headline-making soundbites in the 90-minute debate; but then again, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to reduce policy proposals to soundbites anyway.

Clinton’s campaign website sheds a little more light on what her climate platform would look like. She promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the US by “up to 30% by 2025” – more ambitious than Obama’s 26-28% pledge. She also commits to installing more than five times the country’s current capacity of solar power in her first term, and cutting down on energy waste by a third within ten years.

Meanwhile, Trump’s plan is outlined in the transcript of a speech he gave in North Dakota. He wants to “save the coal industry,” “cancel the Paris Climate Agreement,” and “rescind all the job-destroying Obama executive actions” on climate change.

I’m not going to comment on whether either candidate can feasibly make good on these campaign promises. The point is that come January 2017, our country will be veering onto one of two drastically different paths of environmental stewardship. And while one path may match our environmental-school ideals more than the other, the fact remains that challenges to the land, species, and climate we hold dear will undoubtedly arise on either path.

When that happens, it will be our job – as fresh-faced government advisors, NGO analysts, community organizers, you name it – to show policymakers and the public why that land, those species, and this climate deserve protecting. Doing research and writing papers serve us well in school, but out in the world where we can either “Make America Great Again” or be “Stronger Together,” communication is king.

The American people and the electoral college will decide what happens on November 8. But what happens after the election? Where the environment is concerned, that will be largely up to us.