During the US presidential conventions held by the two major parties in July — a month that NASA would later declare the hottest ever on record — it looked as though climate change had, for once, moved into the spotlight.
The Democrats aired a short film by James Cameron and Maria Wilhelm that warned of severe drought and floods if global warming went unaddressed. The party’s candidate, Hillary Clinton, held up the Paris climate agreement as among her most significant achievements as secretary of state, adding in her acceptance speech that she believes “climate change is real” and “we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying clean energy jobs.”
The Republican nominee had raised energy issues throughout the campaign — in his own way. At various points Donald Trump had oscillated from tepid acceptance of human-caused climate change (saying “perhaps there’s a minor effect” of burning fossil fuels) to sarcastically asking for “a big fat dose of global warming” because it was cold outside.
It seemed like both candidates would be devoting more airtime to climate issues than their counterparts in the 2012 election had. Neither Mitt Romney nor President Obama ever showed much of an appetite for discussing it.
But in the months since the conventions, with Bernie Sanders gone and Trump taking center stage, climate change has faded from the race, disappointing Democratic donors, environmental activists, and climate scientists.
“She gets off too easily with candidates like Trump around because the bar gets set so low,” Bill McKibben, co-founder of the environmental group 350.org, told BuzzFeed News. “All you have to do to be better than Donald Trump is say, ‘I believe in science’.”
In the six months leading up to the Democratic convention, Clinton mentioned the phrase “climate change” in half of all her speeches, according to the website Climate Home, which analyzed transcripts. But after that, although “climate change” occasionally made its way into her stump pitch, the phrase occurred in only one of every five of speeches she made.
That shift almost certainly reflects the loss of her primary competitor Bernie Sanders, who was once named the most hawkish member in the Senate on climate change.
In the primary, Sanders pulled Clinton and her surrogates — like John Podesta, architect of her climate plan — to more liberal positions on many issues related to climate and energy.
For example, early in the race, in August 2015, Clinton announced that she would not allow drilling in the Arctic Ocean. She opposed the construction of the Keystone XP pipeline, which would bring heavy crude oil from Western Canada to the United States and, environmentalists argued, threaten dangerous oil spills. And she debuted an initiative to install 500 million solar panels in the US by the end of her first term.
By 2016, she had expanded her criticism to offshore oil and gas development in the Atlantic Ocean as well. And, unlike Obama during his two presidential campaigns, Clinton didn’t tout “clean coal” or call for expanding drilling on public lands.
That shows how Democratic voters have become more concerned about climate since 2012, said Tom Steyer, a billionaire environmentalist who has endorsed Clinton. “If you used any one of those phrases one time as a Democrat, I think you’re done, literally, as a candidate,” Steyer told BuzzFeed News.
Outside activists successfully pushed Clinton during the primaries, too. For example, after a town hall event last November, a 350.org activist pressed her to make a statement on whether she believed ExxonMobil should be investigated over whether it misled investors about the risks that climate change. (“Yes, yes, they should,” she replied.)
Still, nobody could prod Clinton into responding to what’s often regarded as the single most important question of climate policy: carbon emissions.
Unlike Sanders and Obama, Clinton has not called for putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions in 2016 — either through a carbon tax, which seeks to discourage fossil fuel consumption the same way cigarette taxes discourage smoking, or a cap-and-trade scheme, under which polluters buy and sell the right to emit greenhouse gases.
“We have talked to her people about it,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, told BuzzFeed News. The environmental organization endorsed Clinton in June and worked with her campaign before the convention to shape the Democratic platform. “Clinton hasn't ruled any of those steps out, but she's not putting that — at least not yet — at the center of her strategy on climate.”
Asked why climate has dropped from her talking points, Brune points to her new competitor.
“I think she feels that the contrast between her and Donald Trump's candidacy is the largest contrast there has ever been in a presidential election,” he said.
In other words: She doesn’t have to worry about voters who care about climate going for Trump.
It makes political sense, observers say, that Clinton would avoid talking about a carbon tax, since she’s trying to court more moderate Republicans who can’t stomach Trump. Coming out in favor of a carbon tax would give Trump a way of bashing her for wanting to raise the cost of living on Americans.
At pre-convention meetings in June, Sanders delegates tried but narrowly failed to get their party to adopt a carbon tax or a ban on fracking. (Pricing carbon eventually made the party platform, while a halt on fracking did not.)
While Clinton seems to be losing interest in climate, Americans are more invested than ever. According to Gallup, 64% of US respondents said they were worried about global warming, compared to 55% in 2012. The same trend is seen in surveys from Pew, which found that 45% of people in the US call climate change a “serious problem” — an eight-point jump from 2010.
And, although the 2015 Pew polls showed that Democrats support action on climate change more than Republicans do, about half of all Republicans said they supported limiting greenhouse gas emissions — a view miles away from the GOP nominee.
The environmental community is still holding out hope that moderators of the three upcoming debates, the first of which will be held on Monday, will ask the candidates about climate — unlike the questioners of the 2012 debates, who never brought it up.
“Right before Superstorm Sandy, which was just such an example of what climate change can contribute to, climate change was not really in those debates,” Cassady Craighill, a spokeswoman for Greenpeace, told BuzzFeed News.
Perhaps Monday’s debate — coming a month after Louisiana’s unprecedented deluge, also linked to climate change — will bring it back into the forefront. “I think people would really like to see more of it,” she said.