Issues that Obama and Romney Avoid

The presidential candidates aren’t so keen on addressing the survival of humanity.

Noam Chomsky

Polar bears aren't the only species threatened with extinction by climate change. We are, too. (Marieke IJsendoorn-Kuijpers / Flickr / Creative Commons)

With the qua­dren­ni­al pres­i­den­tial elec­tion extrav­a­gan­za reach­ing its peak, it’s use­ful to ask how the polit­i­cal cam­paigns are deal­ing with the most cru­cial issues we face. The sim­ple answer is: bad­ly, or not at all.

In a rare instance of bipartisanship, both parties demand that we make the problem of global warming worse.

There are two issues of over­whelm­ing sig­nif­i­cance, because the fate of the species is at stake: envi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter and nuclear war.

The for­mer is reg­u­lar­ly on the front pages. On Sep­tem­ber 19, for exam­ple, Justin Gillis report­ed in The New York Times that the melt­ing of Arc­tic sea ice had end­ed for the year, but not before demol­ish­ing the pre­vi­ous record – and set­ting off new warn­ings about the rapid pace of change in the region.”

The melt­ing is much faster than pre­dict­ed by sophis­ti­cat­ed com­put­er mod­els and the most recent U.N. report on glob­al warm­ing. New data indi­cate that sum­mer ice might be gone by 2020, with severe con­se­quences. Pre­vi­ous esti­mates had sum­mer ice dis­ap­pear­ing by 2050.

But gov­ern­ments have not respond­ed to the change with any greater urgency about lim­it­ing green­house emis­sions,” Gillis writes. To the con­trary, their main response has been to plan for exploita­tion of new­ly acces­si­ble min­er­als in the Arc­tic, includ­ing drilling for more oil” –that is, to accel­er­ate the catastrophe.

This reac­tion demon­strates an extra­or­di­nary will­ing­ness to sac­ri­fice the lives of our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren for short-term gain. Or, per­haps, an equal­ly remark­able will­ing­ness to shut our eyes so as not to see the impend­ing peril.

That’s hard­ly all. A new study from the Cli­mate Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty Mon­i­tor has found that cli­mate change caused by glob­al warm­ing is slow­ing down world eco­nom­ic out­put by 1.6 per­cent a year and will lead to a dou­bling of costs in the next two decades.” The study was wide­ly report­ed else­where but Amer­i­cans have been spared the dis­turb­ing news.

The offi­cial Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can plat­forms on cli­mate mat­ters are reviewed in Sci­ence mag­a­zine’s Sep­tem­ber 14 issue. In a rare instance of bipar­ti­san­ship, both par­ties demand that we make the prob­lem worse.

In 2008, both par­ty plat­forms had devot­ed some atten­tion to how the gov­ern­ment should address cli­mate change. Today, the issue has almost dis­ap­peared from the Repub­li­can plat­form – which does, how­ev­er, demand that Con­gress take quick action” to pre­vent the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, estab­lished by for­mer Repub­li­can Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon in san­er days, from reg­u­lat­ing green­house gas­es. And we must open Alaska’s Arc­tic refuge to drilling to take advan­tage of all our Amer­i­can God-giv­en resources.” We can­not dis­obey the Lord, after all.

The plat­form also states that We must restore sci­en­tif­ic integri­ty to our pub­lic research insti­tu­tions and remove polit­i­cal incen­tives from pub­licly fund­ed research” –code words for cli­mate science.

The Repub­li­can can­di­date Mitt Rom­ney, seek­ing to escape from the stig­ma of what he under­stood a few years ago about cli­mate change, has declared that there is no sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus, so we should sup­port more debate and inves­ti­ga­tion – but not action, except to make the prob­lems more serious.

The Democ­rats men­tion in their plat­form that there is a prob­lem, and rec­om­mend that we should work toward an agree­ment to set emis­sions lim­its in uni­son with oth­er emerg­ing pow­ers.” But that’s about it.

Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma has empha­sized that we must gain 100 years of ener­gy inde­pen­dence by exploit­ing frack­ing and oth­er new tech­nolo­gies – with­out ask­ing what the world would look like after a cen­tu­ry of such practices.

So there are dif­fer­ences between the par­ties: about how enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly the lem­mings should march toward the cliff.

The sec­ond major issue, nuclear war, is also on the front pages every day, but in a way that would astound a Mar­t­ian observ­ing the strange doings on Earth.

The cur­rent threat is again in the Mid­dle East, specif­i­cal­ly Iran – at least accord­ing to the West, that is. In the Mid­dle East, the U.S. and Israel are con­sid­ered much greater threats.

Unlike Iran, Israel refus­es to allow inspec­tions or to sign the Treaty on the Non-Pro­lif­er­a­tion of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). It has hun­dreds of nuclear weapons and advanced deliv­ery sys­tems, and a long record of vio­lence, aggres­sion and law­less­ness, thanks to unremit­ting Amer­i­can sup­port. Whether Iran is seek­ing to devel­op nuclear weapons, U.S. intel­li­gence does­n’t know.

In its lat­est report [PDF], the Inter­na­tion­al Atom­ic Ener­gy Agency says that it can­not demon­strate the absence of unde­clared nuclear mate­r­i­al and activ­i­ties in Iran” –a round­about way of con­demn­ing Iran, as the U.S. demands, while con­ced­ing that the agency can add noth­ing to the con­clu­sions of U.S. intelligence.

There­fore Iran must be denied the right to enrich ura­ni­um that is guar­an­teed by the NPT, and endorsed by most of the world, includ­ing the non­aligned coun­tries that have just met in Tehran.

The pos­si­bil­i­ty that Iran might devel­op nuclear weapons aris­es in the elec­toral cam­paign. (The fact that Israel already has them does not.) Two posi­tions are coun­ter­posed: Should the U.S. declare that it will attack if Iran reach­es the capa­bil­i­ty to devel­op nuclear weapons, which dozens of coun­tries enjoy? Or should Wash­ing­ton keep the red line” more indefinite?

The lat­ter posi­tion is that of the White House; the for­mer is demand­ed by Israeli hawks – and accept­ed by the U.S. Con­gress. The Sen­ate just vot­ed 90 – 1 to sup­port the Israeli position.

Miss­ing from the debate is the obvi­ous way to mit­i­gate or end what­ev­er threat Iran might be believed to pose: Estab­lish a nuclear weapons-free zone in the region. The oppor­tu­ni­ty is read­i­ly avail­able: An inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence is to con­vene in a few months to pur­sue this objec­tive, sup­port­ed by almost the entire world, includ­ing a major­i­ty of Israelis.

The gov­ern­ment of Israel, how­ev­er, has announced that it will not par­tic­i­pate until there is a gen­er­al peace agree­ment in the region, which is unat­tain­able as long as Israel per­sists in its ille­gal activ­i­ties in the occu­pied Pales­tin­ian ter­ri­to­ries. Wash­ing­ton keeps to the same posi­tion, and insists that Israel must be exclud­ed from any such region­al agreement.

We could be mov­ing toward a dev­as­tat­ing war, pos­si­bly even nuclear. Straight­for­ward ways exist to over­come this threat, but they will not be tak­en unless there is large-scale pub­lic activism demand­ing that the oppor­tu­ni­ty be pur­sued. This in turn is high­ly unlike­ly as long as these mat­ters remain off the agen­da, not just in the elec­toral cir­cus, but in the media and larg­er nation­al debate.

Elec­tions are run by the pub­lic rela­tions indus­try. Its pri­ma­ry task is com­mer­cial adver­tis­ing, which is designed to under­mine mar­kets by cre­at­ing unin­formed con­sumers who will make irra­tional choic­es – the exact oppo­site of how mar­kets are sup­posed to work, but cer­tain­ly famil­iar to any­one who has watched television.

It’s only nat­ur­al that when enlist­ed to run elec­tions, the indus­try would adopt the same pro­ce­dures in the inter­ests of the pay­mas­ters, who cer­tain­ly don’t want to see informed cit­i­zens mak­ing ratio­nal choices.

The vic­tims, how­ev­er, do not have to obey, in either case. Pas­siv­i­ty may be the easy course, but it is hard­ly the hon­or­able one.

Noam Chom­sky is Insti­tute Pro­fes­sor and Pro­fes­sor of Lin­guis­tics (Emer­i­tus) at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, and the author of dozens of books on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy. His most recent book is Who Rules the World? from Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books.
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