Journalists and political wonks have spilled lots of ink, and more recently lots of gigabytes, in presidential election runups speculating that the environment and global warming could become significant issues in voters’ minds. Seldom have their expectations been realized.
Are there reasons to think things might turn out differently in the 2020 presidential elections? Again, we’re hearing the familiar drumbeat – this time will be different.
Supporting that view is an early July Washington Post-ABC News poll that asked Americans whether they approve or disapprove of the Trump administration’s handling of nine important issues – the economy, immigration, taxes, health care, gun violence, foreign policy, abortion, climate change, and what the poll called issues of “special concern to women.”
Climate change received the most critical response, with 62% of Americans disapproving of the administration’s actions compared to just 29% approving.
That approval rate of “the way Trump is handling” climate change matches the 62 percent of Americans worried about the issue in a recent Yale-George Mason survey.*
The Trump administration has done nothing to address the carbon pollution causing the problem, and instead has exacerbated it. The administration began its campaign against Obama-era climate initiatives by announcing, soon after taking office, its intention to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. Since then, the administration has moved to scrub mentions of climate change from government science press releases, has blocked climate-related congressional testimony from its intelligence agencies, has repealed the EPA Clean Power Plan, frozen vehicle fuel efficiency standards, and undone dozens more regulations aimed at curbing pollutants.
Trump campaign staffers are reportedly concerned that the administration’s anti-environment agenda could hurt his re-election prospects among key constituencies, especially considering his “persistent unpopularity among female and suburban voters.” Compounding those concerns may be that the president’s approval rating hasn’t reached 50 percent during his time in office, making him the only president in the modern era never to have reached that milestone. Add in the “blue wave” midterm elections of 2018 in which Democrats regained a majority in the House of Representatives, and consider also Trump campaigners’ concerns over a mid-June Fox News poll that showed Trump trailing top Democratic presidential contenders.
An important reminder, one that the political pundits on cable TV often emphasize: It’s early in the campaign, and polling and survey results taken this far ahead of an election are certain to fluctuate. Take them with a large grain of salt at this point, many urge.
Are the political times really ‘a changin’?
That said, some Republican confidants and allies of the president – even including Trump-basher-turned-vocal-supporter Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina – have voiced frustration with the administration’s climate science denial. Graham was reported in E&E News as saying, “We owe it to the country to have an alternative to the Green New Deal. We’re going to sit down with the president and see if we can unveil a bill for 2020 that would be good for the environment and good for business.” Some elected Republican lawmakers have taken first steps toward developing climate policy plans of their own.
In what some analysts see as an attempt at damage control, the administration in early July appeared to shelve its controversial efforts to “review” and challenge mainstream federal climate science and analytical reports in a “red team/blue team” debate exercise.
On July 8, Trump delivered his first speech as president focusing on what he said were his administration’s environmental accomplishments. Press reports and fact-checkers noted it was full of misleading assertions and barely touched on climate change. The only relevant references were in a claim that American energy-related carbon emissions have declined rapidly since 2000 (a long-term trend that the current administration’s regulatory rollbacks cannot take credit for), a severely flawed estimate of the costs of some liberal House Democrats’ favored Green New Deal, and selective and inaccurate remarks about the Paris climate accord.
GOP: ‘No time like present’ for environmental concerns?
Against that backdrop, the conservative National Review magazine made famous by its founder William F. Buckley, Jr., on July 15 carried an article headlined “Republicans Take an Important Step Back into the Environmental Debate.”
Reporting that voters have “become increasingly worried about the environment,” the magazine, often highly critical of President Trump, reported that congressional Republicans “have finally realized that there is no time like the present to show some concern for the fate of the natural world.” It pointed to a newly established “Roosevelt Conservation Caucus,” named in honor of President Teddy Roosevelt, “founded in part to remind the public that the GOP is not as monolithically unconcerned with environmental causes as is commonly suggested.”
The National Review article reported Senator Graham saying in a press conference, “I would encourage the president to look long and hard at the science and find the solution. I’m tired of playing defense on the environment.” Graham also said that when over 90 percent of scientists are in agreement that CO2 is the principal cause of warming, “I believe the nine out of the 10, not the one.”
… but partisan political split persists
None of this changes the political calculus, however, that most voters self-identifying as Republicans side with Trump in considering climate change unworthy of their interest or attention. That contrasts with Democratic voters, who regularly single out climate change as a critical issue for their presidential candidates to address.
The roughly two dozen Democratic presidential candidates by and large have voiced support for a debate devoted exclusively to climate change and climate policy. The Democratic National Committee has remained reluctant to hold single-topic debates, but outside groups are planning a presidential candidate climate forum on September 23rd.
Several Democrats seeking the presidency have introduced their own policy proposals, some of them quite elaborate, to address climate change. In addition, a group of Democratic lawmakers have joined with candidate Bernie Sanders of Vermont in backing a resolution officially declaring a climate crisis emergency. Such symbolic resolutions often are seen as being “toothless” – the lowest of low bars compared to actual legislation – but nevertheless express the sentiment of the supporting lawmakers.
As climate change continues to increase the frequency of extreme weather events like the mid-July multi-state record-breaking heat wave that plagued much of the U.S., the issue will inevitably grow more prominent and attract more media and candidate attention in coming elections. American voters will likely become increasingly concerned, and climate policy solutions will continue to rise among their priorities. At that point, both major political parties increasingly see the writing on the wall, and candidates from both sides of the aisle will come to compete for the voting public’s favor on climate change. The heat is rising.
*Editor’s note: The Yale program that conducted the cited survey is the publisher of Yale Climate Connections.