Howard Kunreuther and Erwann Michel-Kerjan on the climate change debate in the U.S. election season

As the Republican National Convention got underway on Monday in Cleveland, Ohio, the issue of climate change was conspicuous by its near total absence from the agenda.

The U.N. summit on climate change in Paris last December raised global awareness about the impact of climate change, both in the run-up to the conference and soon thereafter. But little has been achieved in the seven months since then by way of follow-up action in the U.S. and elsewhere, according to the experts. Distractions have been plenty in the U.S. and Western Europe since then, including Brexit, the influx of migrants, terrorist attacks, issues relating to the economy and the U.S. presidential elections.

However, the presidential election season is an opportune time to address climate-change issues, according to Howard Kunreuther, Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions, and co-director of the school’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center. “The principal point is we need to have a dialog with the two [presidential] candidates about how they feel about climate change,” he said. It is also important for the candidates to acknowledge “that there is a lot that we know about it that should be put on the table,” he added.

Kunreuther said it is important to recognize the existence of scientific data that support the fears of climate change. “Such data must be put on the table of what we know and also what we don’t know so we can have a much more informed discussion.”

Climate change has been a priority issue for the Barack Obama Administration, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Republican Party candidate Donald Trump, said Erwann Michel-Kerjan, executive director of the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center. “Trump is perhaps signaling that he has other priorities, and issues such as nuclear non-proliferation and terrorism are more important to him than climate change.”

Michel-Kerjan recalled that Trump was a signatory to an open letter published in The New York Times that urged Obama to do more to address climate change. He now speaks a different language on the subject, he noted.

Kunreuther and Michel-Kerjan discussed the need to refocus attention on climate change in the presidential campaign season on the Knowledge at Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

Why Is Everybody Quiet?

Michel-Kerjan said he had expected the subject of climate change to continue to be actively discussed in global forums after the Paris accord, given the positive mood at that time and the general feeling that “everybody moved in the right direction.” However, in the run-up to the U.S. presidential elections, issues of unemployment and terrorism have dominated debates, and those of environmental solutions have been sidelined, he noted.

“Trump is perhaps signaling that he has other priorities, and issues such as nuclear non-proliferation and terrorism are more important to him than climate change.” –Erwann Michel-Kerjan

Kunreuther said he wasn’t surprised that the discussions on climate change have not kept up the energy levels seen around the time of the Paris accords. He noted that the issue has been “very controversial in Congress and there hasn’t been an effort made to have a very informed discussion.”

Kunreuther suspected that one obstacle might be the inability of political parties to develop a common front on combating climate change. In the Republican National Convention, for instance, he said he is unsure if the subject will get discussed much because of differing opinions within its fold. “If they want unity, it’s likely that [climate change] may not be discussed,” he said. “They may feel that when they bring this issue up, they’re going to be dealing with a hot potato.”

On the other hand, Kunreuther said “the general public is concerned about climate change,” citing studies conducted by Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He said he was surprised that even as public concern about climate change runs high, it hasn’t become one of the issues in the election season.

Michel-Kerjan noted people tend to respond to specific events, and that no major hurricane or other such event has occurred since Superstorm Sandy in 2012. “A heat wave and a lot of hot weather may force the parties to come to grips with some of this, simply because people will be reacting to that,” he said.

Galvanize the People

Kunreuther wanted action at the local level to lead the charge. “Having local communities and states take the leadership role could then spur some action at the national level,” he said. Their actions could serve as models for other communities, he added.

“Having local communities and states take the leadership role could then spur some action at the national level.” –Howard Kunreuther

Climate change and its impacts are actively debated in New Orleans, Florida and other places along the U.S. coastline, especially those whose local economies are threatened. Their programs to combat climate change run on the themes of mitigation and adaptation measures to adjust energy consumption patterns, he noted. Some of them are beginning to take action now to address future issues, such as Louisiana and California, said Kunreuther. He cited California’s efforts to promote solar power over fossil fuels as an example of adaptation measures.

Michel-Kerjan agreed on the importance of action at local levels to address climate change. However, people in the shore areas often find such issues to be abstract, and want to know specifics of how it would affect their economies, he said. Also, the impact of climate change may vary by the year, and people tend to forget about those issues in good years, he added.

Kunreuther said he hoped that climate change and its impacts will be addressed by the new U.S. president. He noted that the issue is controversial, especially as it relates to that of fossil fuels such as coal, and the jobs that depend on them. “Short-run considerations seem to be dominating the agenda,” he added. “[But] climate change is a longer term problem that needs to be addressed now.”