The outcome of any election hinges on many factors. So it was with Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. No single reason can fully explain the outcome. But one important factor in all elections is what stands out to voters above the messy static of messaging throughout the campaign season. This signal-to-noise issue also makes climate change risk management difficult despite our having straightforward and well understood response options.
Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton each had attributes that stood out strongly to voters. He was one of America’s most prominent businessmen. He was also an outspoken political outsider who emphasized toughness on border security and immigration. She was among the most experienced politicians in the country. She was also a woman—the first nominated by a major party—who emphasized inclusion across race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation.
These were strong attributes that often cut both ways. They resonated powerfully with each candidate’s supporters while also angering and motivating each candidate’s opponents. The net impact of these attributes is difficult to assess.
But Trump had two signal-to-noise advantages over Clinton. First, no single reason to vote against him garnered strong and consistent media attention. He got negative coverage on a daily basis for untrue statements, ethical lapses, and with frequent questions about his judgment and temperament. But these negative storylines shifted from one issue to the next throughout the campaign. The lack of focus on a single issue made it more likely that Trump’s supporters would overlook wrongdoing, conclude that it reflected media bias, or view it as confirmation that Trump was the brash outsider who wouldn’t care about political correctness and who could shake up Washington.
In contrast, a small number of negative storylines followed Clinton throughout the campaign and one, in particular, received constant attention: her use of a private server for State Department emails. The sharp focus of attention on emails gave voters a strong indicator that they represented serious wrongdoing. That was particularly resonant with those who see politicians negatively, which also favorably reinforced Trump’s standing as a political outsider and countered one of Clinton’s key strengths: her experience.
Trump’s policy messages also stood out clearly from the background. Most voters likely knew that Trump would build a wall. He would ban Muslim immigration. He would deport millions of undocumented workers. These were clear signals of what a President Trump would do, and it gave voters who agree with those positions a clear reason to support him. Barack Obama had that in 2008 when most voters knew that he would fix health care.
In contrast, Hillary Clinton had many carefully developed policies but none that would stand out clearly to all voters. She seemed to recognize and account for important nuances in policy decisions, build on past policy successes, and consider the Constitution and the impact that United States actions would have on other countries. Clinton supporters who paid close attention could identify a dozen ways that she would, in their view, move the country forward. For most voters, however, there was no wall. There was no health care.
So how does this all relate to climate change risk management?
Climate change, as a public issue, is among the most difficult signal-to-noise challenges that we face. People do not experience climate change on a daily basis. Scientists are increasingly able to identify the consequences of climate change (e.g., here, here, and here) but most people, at least for now, don’t experience our greenhouse gas emissions as causing harm and the most serious societal consequences will likely occur decades from now. For the public as a whole to respond to any threat, a clear signal of urgency has to rise above the noise of our daily lives. When climate change reaches that threshold, it will be because risk management is already too late.
Fortunately, representative democracies, such as ours, are created to navigate the signal-to-noise challenges that a nation faces. We don’t need 300 million Americans fully focused on climate science and policy. All it will take for effective climate change risk management is for a relatively small number of politicians and policy professionals to focus on understanding the risks and making a good-faith effort to work through the trade offs of the response options.
But it may take all 300 million Americans to navigate the signal-to-noise challenges that arise during elections in order to have a high-functioning representative democracy—one that can recognize and address issues like climate change.
Navigating the signal-to-noise issues during elections requires a political process that rewards good-faith efforts to develop beneficial policies rather than empty political rhetoric, or the advancement of narrow and short-sighted interests. A well-informed electorate is a basic ingredient for success and that almost certainly requires media that provide accurate information and sufficient context for the public to understand it. Ensuring that we have such media may depend on a system of public education that equips us all to distinguish the credible sources from the background babble of confusion and misinformation.
That may seem like it leaves us with an enormous amount to work on—it does. The good news is that science and information are more accessible to everyone than ever. We can all help the most by working to stay well informed and doing what we can to help others do the same. That will always be true no matter what the outcome of this or any election.