The environment has tended to be eclipsed in elections by hot topics such as healthcare, civil rights, the economy, and gun control. However, with the White House spending the last two years unashamedly embarked in an effort to rollback environmental protections and deny science its place in policy making, these midterms are turning out to be a different story.
What’s Been Missing From Campaigns
Climate change has, until now, not received the place it truly deserves in the national conversation –especially during political campaigns.
While there was plenty to cover in the last presidential election –from email scandals, to erratic Tweeting behavior, and sexual assault –one issue was ominously absent throughout the campaign, and most notably, during the Clinton-Trump debates. Even as President Obama, and a myriad of other leaders, called climate change the single most important issue of our generation, we heard very little about it, from all candidates, on the campaign trail (that is besides the fact that the whole thing is a made up hoax from the Chinese).
A Heating Divide?
The effects of climate change are only becoming worse, more apparent, and much more widespread over the past few years. As sea levels rise, hurricanes wreak havoc in our cities, and fires blaze in the West Coast, the country prepares for a midterm election that will be decisive for the future of climate action, and where climate change is set to take center stage.
And rightly so. The midterms come just weeks after a major UN report, which compiles scientific data from around the world, issues warnings on the state of our climate and the urgency of political action.
As voters are increasingly more aware and more concerned about climate change, candidates are adjusting course, and making climate a larger part of their campaigns. And although largely on the Democratic side, some Republican candidates are also embracing climate adaptation and even prevention on the campaign trail.
Yet climate has also increasingly become a highly partisan issue. Recent polling by the Pew Research Center shows that 72% of registered voters backing Democrats in the upcoming elections view climate change as a “very big” problem, compared to just 11% of GOP supporters.
It is for these reasons that this election –its turnout and results –will determine the future of the climate debate, as well as shape American climate policy for years to come. More specifically, it will either cement climate change as a highly political wedge issue, or (hopefully) lead to increased bipartisan understanding of its gravity and our responsibility to act.
The Green Backlash
It took the Federal government pulling out of the Paris Agreement, completely mishandling the EPA, rolling back auto emissions standards and methane rules, and reversing the Clean Power Plan, for voters to start taking the environment more seriously. Go figure.
For what it’s worth, there is one silver lining from the past two years. Environmentalists –as is the case for advocates and activists in other aspects of civil rights– are showing up, and more than that, they are running for elected office across the country.
More than a dozen scientists are running for Congress this November—a record number that reflects the growing activism from the scientific community. The trend has most definitely been triggered by the White House’s rejection of science, especially when it comes to climate change.
As is the case in many partisan issues, the harder the Trump Administration berates climate policy, the further it pushes Democrats to embrace bold solutions. Current policies by party upstarts are far more ambitious than policies enacted by the previous administration. These policies are moving the party to embrace once longshot climate plans such as 100% clean energy and carbon pricing. At least six Democrats running for governor this year have embraced a goal of moving completely to clean energy in coming decades, as have potential 2020 contenders Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, and Elizabeth Warren.
Issues of clean energy and climate change have also been prominent in some of the most competitive Congressional races across the country.
A New Face on the Block
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, running for Congress for the New York district stretching from the Bronx to Queens, stands out in the Democratic party as having one of the most ambitious and comprehensive stances on climate change, and with the potential to lead Democrats further to the left, in the best of ways, when it comes to addressing climate change.
She stands on a platform that promotes the kind of radical and systemic change that we so desperately need when addressing climate change, and she is on track to be the most progressive congressperson in the Democratic party.
Scientists already gave us a dire warning this fall –we have a little over 10 years to make these changes before this planet can no longer sustain our way of life. The 28-year-old Latina, who will most likely be heading to the Hill next week, has the only climate plan that actually matches the scientific recommendations and consensus on what needs to happen to avoid a worse case climate scenario. Her proposals include the support for a national carbon pricing scheme, and the creation of a ‘Green New Deal’ –aiming to redirect the U.S. economy towards 100 percent renewable energy.
“We need more environmental hardliners in Congress,” she told In These Times magazine. “We need a Marshall Plan for renewable energy in the United States. The idea that the Democratic Party needs to be moderate is what’s holding us back on this.”
Especially at a time when Democrats have largely failed to rally around meaningful climate policy, she will (and already has been) an important voice in the party.
Shifting Voter Priorities
Even Republican Trump supporters have started to recognize the realities of climate change. In North Carolina, a state pummeled by two hurricanes in two years, there has been a discernible shift among Republican voters in matters related to climate change. It seems, voters need to see and feel firsthand the impacts of a changing climate to support policies to combat it, and, unfortunately, we are only going to see more and more of them.
Another key variable in terms of the shifting priorities of voters is age. Young people care about climate change, and are making choices about who to vote for (and whether to vote at all) based on candidates’ stances on the issue. Over three-fourths of millennials agree that humans should take steps to slow or stop climate change, and Almost 70% of millennials say climate change will either seriously or somewhat affect them in their lifetimes. As young voters become a larger pool of the electorate, and themselves start running for office, we are likely to see these concerns reflected in policy.
As voter opinion and concerns change and evolve on the topic, so will politicians’ will and ability to incorporate climate policy into the platforms in a meaningful way.
Climate change now undeniably plays a role as a voter-turnout issue. More importantly, it has demonstrated it can be a determining factor for voters who tend to identify as somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum. There is now significant room to gain votes by embracing climate change as a key issue, and in turn, strengthen the policies proposed and passed to address it.
The bottom line is: in order to stand a chance, candidates on both sides of the isle can no longer afford to stay silent on climate change, a crucial issue as we gear up for presidential campaigns in 2020. At the same time, this election will pave the way for the future of climate policy and serve as a referendum on American voters on how much they care about the environment when casting their ballots.
Interested in hearing how the midterms play out? Join our webinar on Thursday, November 8th for members of our Business Association, CABA.