An atmosphere of neglect

On Wednesday, Maryland lawmakers held a hearing to learn more about an issue of pressing fiscal importance: climate change. A few hours later and 2,500 miles away, the two leading candidates for president engaged in a debate in which the issue was treated as no more than an afterthought. Not only was a question about climate change absent from the stage in Las Vegas but it was never raised in the previous two presidential debates either.

How climate change could be regarded as so irrelevant to the presidential contest yet so crucial to state government finances says a lot about the national state of denial and neglect over the harmful effects of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.


In Annapolis, what lawmakers heard is that Maryland needs to adjust the investments in the state's $45 billion pension portfolio to minimize its carbon footprint. Why? Not because of some bleeding-heart desire to make the planet a slightly better place (although applying ethical considerations to investment decisions deserves proper consideration, too) but because the future profitability of greenhouse gas polluters looks dismal.

That's right, on strictly a dollar and cents calculation, Maryland needs to divest from big polluters like coal, oil, large manufacturing and other companies that rely on fossil fuels. That shouldn't come as too great a shock. Coal mining companies have been filing for bankruptcy faster than Donald Trump's Atlantic City casinos did a decade ago. Other large pension holders have been adding climate change risk experts to manage their portfolios for the same reason.


And it isn't just pensions. The adverse effects of climate change have been worrying Wall Street for years. As a recent report notes, insurance companies — property and casualty firms, in particular — have been fretting about worsening climate change risks. As global warming leads to more catastrophic weather, the danger of huge payouts to policyholders has increased, and they, like pensions and other big investors, are putting their money into renewables.

The list of corporations that are making strategic decisions about their future with an eye to climate change reads like the Dow Jones Industrial Index: Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Starbucks, Goldman Sachs and on and on. This isn't just some public relations move; farsighted executives see a huge advantage in steering their businesses toward a reduced carbon footprint, either through less energy consumption or greater use of less polluting forms of energy as temperatures rise.

Yet despite this surge of activity within corporate leadership and investment communities, the presidential contenders can't be asked over the length of four and a half hours of debate about what the federal government should be doing? Shame on the various moderators for not insisting that Mr. Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speak directly on such a critically important topic. It's an embarrassment to journalism that the closest anyone got to a climate question was the one about energy-related jobs offered by red-sweater-enthusiast Ken Bone.

As it happens, the candidates' positions are no secret. Mr. Trump has said he is not a "big believer" in man-made climate change (even describing it on Twitter as a Chinese hoax) and has attacked the Obama administration's efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Ms. Clinton believes the problem is real and a threat to the nation's security. She has supported international agreements to limit emissions (saying in her Democratic nomination acceptance speech that she was proud to have helped shape them) and has pledged to accelerate clean energy deployment.

Granted, Maryland's pension investments aren't going to drive national, let alone global, policy on climate change. But it's certainly prudent to make smarter investments, a choice made easier if corporations were required to publicly reveal more about their carbon footprints. That kind of Wall Street reform is not just socially responsible, it's something investors ought to demand. And who should lead the way? That's the proper role of a U.S. president — to not only seek legislative and regulatory relief but to use the bully pulpit of his or her position to call attention to this enormous environmental threat and rally public support behind reasonable solutions. For the record, one candidate appears qualified and prepared to do so and one does not.