This piece was first published in Forbes on July 25, 2019. It is reprinted with their permission.
Climate change has assumed a higher profile in American life and electoral politics than at any time in history. Last weekend, large portions of the country endured extreme heat during a month that climate scientists project will be the hottest ever recorded. The heat has come during a 2019 punctuated by widespread California wildfires, disastrous flooding in the Midwest and, further north, 90 degree temperatures in the Arctic gateway city of Anchorage, Alaska. Attribution science, the rapidly developing discipline that allows scientists to trace the cause and effect relationship between climate change and extreme weather, makes it increasingly clear that Earth’s warming atmosphere is the driver of more frequent environmental emergencies.
The intensity of recent weather feeds the urgency with which climate change is now being taken up by the country’s electorate, most vociferously by young, progressive Democrats that make up groups such as the Sunrise Movement. There’s also the unprecedented phenomenon of a presidential candidate, Jay Inslee, who has prioritized climate action above all else. And, while some have criticized the minimal attention paid to climate change during the June Democratic presidential debates, the fact that the issue drew its own questions, and that many of the candidates now support the idea of a Democratic debate focused solely on climate, shows just how far the topic has advanced since the 2016 presidential cycle.
Yet, all of this said, it remains unclear whether climate change will emerge as a truly pivotal issue in the 2020 general election. Since the 1970’s, when bipartisan anxiety over declining environmental quality drove a Republican president to establish the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans have on whole professed deep concern for the environment and, more recently, climate. We same Americans have tended to vote, however, on issues that have felt more immediate and pressing, such as jobs, healthcare and education, and around lighting rods like abortion and gun rights.
A critical question, given the growing number of warnings from the likes of the U.S. government and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that global warming imperils us all, is whether the country has finally reached the point where climate will in fact be a decisive issue for voters at the polls. Environmental sociology (yes, there is such a field) refers to this as a question of salience. When it comes to decision time, does the voter prioritize environment?
This question is in fact least important among voters who would be most likely to vote for a climate candidate. Democrats have a range of decent or better options among their presidential hopefuls. Inslee has the most comprehensive climate plan, Kamala Harris has sought to extract climate damages from the oil industry, and Elizabeth Warren has spoken of a multi-front approach to reining in emissions. Most of the Democratic candidates will address climate change in their own way, to varying but significant degrees. Democratic primary voters really can’t go wrong.
Where the electoral gravity of climate change becomes really important is among undecided voters and in purple states, and among the growing proportion of Republicans for whom climate change is a real concern. These are the swing voters that will decide the outcome of next year’s general election. To the extent that they add climate to their list of salient issues, and vote accordingly, climate change could become a factor in 2020.
Or, could it? Beginning with the Reagan era politics in the U.S. have been marked by increasing polarization between the two major parties and the emergence of identity politics, where individual and political identities increasingly become one in the same.
Reagan was the first president to aggressively frame environmental protection as another form of governmental regulation that would threaten American economic growth, and thus set the stage for the convergence of conservative and anti-environmental ideologies. By the time President Bill Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 Republicans had taken the idea to heart. In response to Kyoto the conservative Heritage Foundation pounced, calling the accord an affront to Congress and warning that it would “force Americans to sacrifice their personal and economic freedom to the whims of international bureaucracy.”
Thus framed, climate action was not just an emerging facet of environmental protection but would become, to an ever expanding fringe, part of a global conspiracy to usurp America’s independence.
“In the 1990s you had conservative donors, media and think tanks starting to pump out climate denial information, which really impacted candidates for the Republican party,” says Riley Dunlap, an environmental sociologist and professor emeritus at Oklahoma State University who has studied American attitudes to environment and climate for nearly half a century. “It became almost a litmus test.”
The League of Conservation Voters has chronicled the growing rift between Democrats and Republicans on climate that resulted. In 1990 the LCV, which ranks politicians based on how positively they vote on environmental issues, recorded a 20-point divide between the environmental scores of Republican and Democratic politicians (with Republicans averaging a score in the 30 point range, Democrats around 50 points on a 100 point scale). Today the divide has widened to more than 70 points.
For climate the implications of the shift are critical. “Today, being a Republican or a Democrat is a key identity to people and that identity has become very strong,” says Dunlap. “And climate change denial has become part of people’s core identity as Republicans.”
The rift has been reinforced by the phenomenon of negative partisanship. “Not only do you identify with your own party, but you see the other party as bad people, even a threat to the country.”
What this may mean in the context of the coming 2020 election is that an individual can be concerned about climate change and accept climate science yet, as a strong partisan, be committed above all else to defeating the opposing party even when key interests align.
But all may not be lost. It’s human nature to take a crisis seriously when it becomes personal. Republican members of Congress are increasingly calling for climate action, particularly in the most climate sensitive states like Florida. Carlos Curbelo, the former Florida Republican congressman who in 2018 introduced climate legislation in the House of Representatives did so because sea level rise became an unavoidable issue for many of his South Florida constituents. More recently, the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, directed more than $2 billion to address existing climate-related damage in the state.
Even Trump has shown recent signs of caving to public concern about climate. The president claimed in early July that the U.S. has outperformed all Paris climate signatories in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The claim flies in the face of fact, and reveals that Trump is feeling pressure to put on a positive climate face when respected Republican pollster Frank Luntz warns that climate is evolving into a GOP liability.
Just maybe, the rigid bounds of identity politics are beginning to flex around the issue of climate.
And, sure, a fatalist might surmise that fire and flood must befall more Americans, and particularly purple-state independents, for climate change to become a truly pivotal electoral issue. But this may be too extreme. A total of 169 million Americans lived through a heat wave in 2016, versus just 12 million people in 2000. Americans are feeling the impact of climate change right now.
An optimist might say that a tipping point is coming. Maybe these recent signs, still shy of catastrophe, are nevertheless strong enough to free ever more Americans to get on board with climate reality. Maybe enough to matter at the polls in 2020.