Rolling, roiling global crises spanning the Mideast to Eastern Europe to West Africa dominate the headlines. But they don’t seem to be sticking in the heads of most voters — or the candidates courting them.
Gallup’s July survey of what Americans consider to be “the most important problem facing this country today” once again was led by an aggregate of aggravating economic problems (totaling 41 percent). Noneconomic problems listed were led by “immigration/illegal aliens” (17 percent).
While the border crisis is by definition an international issue, it doesn’t seem to be seen from the perspective of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, but rather New Mexico, Arizona, California and Texas. This domestic focus is reflected in Gallup’s top foreign-policy issue being foreign policy as an issue — “foreign aid/focus overseas” was listed by 3 percent of respondents. Conversely, “international issues,” “terrorism,” “wars,” “conflict between Middle East nations” and the “war in Afghanistan” were noted by only 1 percent of respondents each.
Whether the public’s reluctance to focus on foreign affairs mirrors or is molding the 2014 campaign is unclear. What is clear, however, is that a scant 4.2 percent of congressional campaign ads refer to foreign policy, according to an analysis by Kantar Media that was reported in the New York Times.
As for the truly transnational issue of climate change, there wasn’t even a category for that abstract challenge. Perhaps that’s because the public is conflicted: A March Gallup poll reported that despite 65 percent believing that “the effects of global warming are happening or will begin to happen during their lifetimes,” only 36 percent believe “global warming will pose a serious threat to their way of life during their lifetimes.”
This disconnect makes the issue distant in much of the country. But on Wall Street and in Washington, connections are being made. In June, a bipartisan group of former Treasury secretaries and current business leaders issued a bracing report, “Risky Business.” And, in Washington, it’s not just progressive policy wonks who are worried — the Pentagon and CIA are spooked as well.
“Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs,” said the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review, which was issued in March. The Pentagon went on to warn that the “pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are force multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tensions — conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”
The link between climate and food — this month’s Minnesota International Center’s Great Decisions dialogue —– will also be the topic in a new monthly series, “Global Conversations,” which kicks off Wednesday evening at the Minneapolis Central Library. It’s the kind of conversation Secretary of State John Kerry called for at last Tuesday’s “Working Session on Resilience and Food Security in a Changing Climate.” Addressing leaders from 50 countries, Kerry called climate change a “question of political will” and called for action from governments, companies, research institutions, international organizations — and civil society.
Civil society in a civilized setting like the Central Library allows for “a variety of expressions to come through in an environment where there is a general tolerance for exploring, and becoming more sure of the knowledge that’s out there,” said Helen Burke, senior librarian in business, science and government documents there.
“Tolerance for exploring” isn’t usually associated with the climate-change debate, which generates more heat than light. But it fits libraries — especially their evolution as a place where patrons aren’t quieted but encouraged to speak up. Americans apparently approve: 58 percent told the Pew Research Center last year that library “programs for adults” are very or somewhat important, and 94 percent believe libraries improve the “quality of life in a community” — a level of trust that is the antithesis of the cynicism surrounding campaign commercials.
Of course, campaign ads exponentially outshout civil-society dialogue. But most ads’ callow quality isn’t equal to the gravity of most issues. So no matter which side of the debate one is on, maybe it’s good that political ads aren’t addressing climate change. After all, events like “Global Conversations” — and conversations at kitchen tables — are likely to be more meaningful and durable.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. on Friday on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.