Las Vegas is a tough town for polar bears. But there I was, in the hours before the final presidential debate, sweating profusely inside our Frostpaw the Polar Bear costume, trying to start conversations about climate change and its threat to life as we know it.
For all the doomsday rhetoric in this presidential election, climate change has been largely ignored. In three presidential debates, spanning four-and-a-half hours, not a single question was asked about climate change, the urgent need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, or how the candidates’ positions on this crucial issue differ.
Hillary Clinton did briefly raise the issue in the first and third debates, chiding Donald Trump for once calling climate change a hoax perpetrated by China, which he falsely denied. And voter-turned-Internet-sensation Ken Bone, who works in the coal industry, in the closing minutes of the second debate asked the candidates how their energy policies would protect “fossil fuel plant workers” while still being “environmentally friendly,” a vague reference that did little to clarify how this country should be addressing this gathering threat.
The glaring omission from our national political dialogue has been noted by the New York Times, the Guardian, and many other media outlets. Earlier this week, Bloomberg wrote a widely circulated house editorial, “The Missing Climate Change Debate,” that concluded, “On one of the most momentous and difficult issues facing their nation and the world, Americans deserve better than a blackout.”
Frostpaw and I couldn’t agree more, so we plunged into the wild partisan scrum surrounding this political spectacle, trying to raise awareness of climate change and its implications for polar bears, people, and the planet we all share.
Las Vegas was locked down on Oct. 19. Police were everywhere, many roads and parking lots were closed for security reasons, and law enforcement helicopters patrolled the skies. The city was packed with journalists and political partisans of all stripes, taking advantage of the national spotlight.
There were protests and political demonstrations all over town, including a wall of taco trucks outside the Trump Hotel to highlight his position on immigration, but most of the action was on campus at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where the debate was held.
The two focal points were around the stages set up by CNN and MSNBC, where partisans, protesters, and proselytizers of all kinds wielded signs and jockeyed for positions in view of the television cameras.
Yet a huge, realistic-looking polar bear – carrying signs that read “Don’t Gamble With My Future,” “Stop Ignoring Climate Change and Extinction Crisis,” and “Dirty Fossil Fuels are a Bad Bet” – still managed to stand out and get plenty of attention. In my four hours there as Frostpaw, I posed for hundreds of photos with people and did interviews with a half-dozen media outlets, including C-Span and Jimmy Kimmel Live.
At one point, I met Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), who called out “Hey, Mr. Polar Bear,” posed for photos with me, and agreed when I asked whether he thought climate change wasn’t getting the attention it deserves in this presidential election.
“Are you hot in there?” was the question I was asked by passersby most often, maybe 20 times, and my answer each time was something like: “Not as hot as we’re all going to be if we don’t act on climate change now.”
This country is at crossroads. With August marking the 16th consecutive months of record-breaking global temperatures, there’s no doubt that climate change is real, that we’re already feeling its impact, and that we need to move quickly away from fossil fuels to avoid the most catastrophic scenarios predicted by climate scientists.
As a direct result of the greenhouse gases we’re spewing into our atmosphere and oceans, we’re already experiencing increasingly ferocious superstorms in some areas, lingering droughts in California and other areas, ocean acidification and warming, and rising sea levels. And these dangers will be much, much worse if we don’t take bold steps to move into a clean energy future.
President Obama can take important climate change actions before he leaves office at the end of this year, including ending new leasing of federal lands and waters to fossil fuels companies, which he has the full authority to do unilaterally.
But it will be up to the next president to turn the broad goals of the Paris climate accord into concrete actions to cut pollution, leave dirty fossil fuels in the ground and help the developing world improve its people’s standard of living without following the same carbon-intensive path that we and other wealthy countries have taken.
It won’t be easy. But there’s a growing global movement that will push the next U.S. president and other world leaders to take the ambitious actions necessary to avoid climate chaos. And that’s good news for polar bears and people alike.