Can Renewable Energy Break America’s Silence On Climate Change?

You might not recall the last time a presidential candidate was asked about climate change during a general election debate. That’s because in eight years of political sparring matches the issue has only received 82 seconds of debate time, prior to the second Clinton/Trump Debate. In sixteen years (five election cycles), climate change has received 37 minutes and 6 seconds of airtime, and that includes the Gore/Bush standoff. Sunday night, the second Clinton/Trump debate briefly discussed energy sources with climate change as a secondary issue but that conversation was quickly abandoned by both candidates. What's with the climate silence?

The week after NBC’s Clinton/Trump debate, Pew Research uncovered that the greatest contributor to climate disagreements are political, attributing these fractures unsurprisingly to partisanship. While this is certainly a major factor in national differences, it neglects a critical component highlighted by America's history of presidential debates. We are not talking about climate change and our political process reflects that.

According to public opinion research released last week, 70 percent of Americans “rarely or never discuss global warming…” which may account for its omission during general election debates. The same poll found that only one in five Americans report hearing someone they know talk about climate change per month. Surprisingly, this does not reflect public concern over climate change, as a Gallup Poll found that 64 percent of Americans are “worried a great deal about climate change.” So how do we spark the discussion?

With political candidates and everyday Americans falling silent on the issue of climate change, faith leaders have taken the lead. Last week, the Dalai Lama insisted that more countries adopt renewable energy, and five Catholic organizations on five continents fully divested from fossil fuels in honor of St. Francis of Assisi Feast Day. These sentiments and actions not only carry weight in the faith world but the political realm as well.

Neil Newhouse, a partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, explains that we should “start with talking about clean energy because people are in favor of that, and the more you link that to reducing dependence on foreign oil, the more you’re going to get traction in [the Republican] party.”

Nearly one-quarter of religious Americans report hearing their faith leaders discuss “environmental issues,” but simply talking about them isn’t enough. Without the right messaging tools, faith leaders not only run the risk of ineffective outreach but may further position the issue in a way that turns politically conservative Americans away. Clean energy neutralizes the conversation – creating a common ground on which Americans may form solutions, according to Christian Science Monitor.

Clean energy is a great place to start for many of the reasons clarified by Newhouse, but ecoAmerica’s Let’s Talk Climate Report found that leaders should take this approach a step further. Clean energy resonates with conservative audiences more strongly when its sources are spelled out, such as wind power or solar energy. For many Americans, these specific solutions demonstrate a move away from foreign oil dependency in exchange for domestically produced economic gains that will benefit them directly.

Pope Francis used this approach in his Encyclical, Laudato si' when he discussed climate justice and specific solutions in tandem:

172. Taking advantage of abundant solar energy will require the establishment of mechanisms and subsidies which allow developing countries access to technology transfer, technical assistance and financial resources, but in a way which respects their concrete situations, since “the compatibility of [infrastructures] with the context for which they have been designed is not always adequately assessed.” The costs of this would be low, compared to the risks of climate change.

Gwen Schanker, an editorial columnist for Huntington News, supports this approach, adding, “talking about climate change in the context of clean energy – a still risky but rapidly developing economic opportunity, as well as an opportunity to dramatically reduce our country’s carbon footprint – may be one way to generate more widespread acceptance of the issue as a whole.” Schanker contends that “viewing [climate change] either from an economic perspective or as a growing public health problem…may draw more attention to the problem and could help our country address it on a larger scale.”

Last week’s South By South Lawn climate discussion demonstrated this approach when President Barack Obama, Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, and ecoAmerica Leadership Council member, climate scientist and Evangelical Christian Katharine Hayhoe shared their love for all things renewable. Watch the full discussion below!


Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside.

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