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Why Wasn't Climate The Electoral Lever We Thought It Would Be?

Flames come close to houses during the Blue Ridge Fire on October 27, 2020 in Chino Hills, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)
Flames come close to houses during the Blue Ridge Fire on October 27, 2020 in Chino Hills, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)

More than 74 million Americans voted for a man who rejects the science underlying the gravest threat to humanity. Donald Trump surpassed his 2016 vote tally and was only narrowly defeated in a year that saw freakish hurricanes, record hot summers, thawing permafrost, melting ice sheets, extended droughts, dying coral reefs and historic wildfires.

In a just universe, Trump’s obtuse stance on climate science, his zealous support of the fossil fuel industry and his utter lack of a climate policy would have gutted his candidacy from the outset. That he came as close as he did to winning, again, calls into question whether the broad electorate in the United States will ever give climate change its due at the ballot box.

Pessimism about the salience of climate policy comes in the wake of this year’s national election, despite indications that the issue was more significant for voters earlier this fall.

In September, an NPR poll ranked climate change as the top issue for 22% of Democrats and 11% of independents. Groups such as the Environmental Voter Project and the Sunrise Movement reported success in registering large numbers of voters. And a majority of respondents tell pollsters that climate change is a “serious problem.”

But the election told another story. First, it failed to produce the definitive electoral repudiation that climate activists felt Trump deserved. And then there were the exit polls.

Even in deep blue Massachusetts, only 6% named climate change as the country’s highest priority.

In an AP poll, only about 4% of all voters identified climate change as the most critical problem facing the nation. Not surprisingly, the pandemic was the top-ranked issue by far, but also coming in well ahead of climate change were the economy, healthcare, racism and law enforcement. Even in deep blue Massachusetts, only 6% named climate change as the country’s highest priority.

Polls did show strong support among Democrats for climate action. But in a New York Times exit poll that asked all voters to identify the issue that most influenced their choice for president, climate change was not among the top five responses. And there was zero evidence that significant numbers of Republicans regard climate change as an urgent matter.

So, why is the issue that Joe Biden called the “number one issue facing humanity” underperforming as an electoral lever?

In a post-election analysis, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman suggests two reasons. The first is “the power of special interests,” referring to lobbying and disinformation campaigns funded by fossil fuel wealth to influence elections and discredit climate science.

The second reason Krugman offers is the inherently complex nature of climate change as a political phenomenon. A climate policy put in place today may not yield benefits for decades. The connection, say, between increasing usage of public transit and slowing sea-level rise is difficult to convey in a 30-second ad.

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And most importantly, there is the powerful force of partisanship. Sometime in the past 40 years, the idea of addressing climate change fell on the left side of the partisan divide, and there it has stayed. In our polarized politics, a voter’s identification with a party is a stronger determinant of his or her position on climate change than is a thoughtful understanding of the subject.

Now, after four lost years, there is no time left to dither about climate action. The question is not whether Joe Biden has a mandate to implement his climate plan — but, rather, should it even matter if he has a mandate. The Republican electorate may remain skeptical, but GOP politicians need to step up regardless. Populism has its limits as an effective way to govern.

Conservatives should get this. Edmund Burke, the 18th-century statesman often called the father of conservatism, advanced the idea that the elected representatives in a republic should not serve merely as delegates for their constituents’ opinions. Instead, Burke believed that representatives should deliberate in good faith as trustees of the public interest, relying on their own experience and good judgment to arrive at wise policy.

[A] voter’s identification with a party is a stronger determinant of his or her position on climate change than is a thoughtful understanding of the subject.

Congress now has a responsibility to elevate the priority of climate policy above what the election results alone suggest is warranted.

Of course, a great deal hinges on control of the U.S. Senate — it would be naive to hope that Mitch McConnell will have a Burkean moment and decide to work with Democrats on a landmark climate bill. Still, even without Republican support for laws explicitly focused on climate, Democrats can insert progressive measures into legislation related to the environment, trade, defense, agriculture, energy, housing, transportation and healthcare.

Joe Biden’s appointment of former Secretary of State John Kerry to be a special presidential envoy for climate, a cabinet-level position, signals that the incoming president will justly emphasize the task of addressing climate change throughout the executive branch. But it remains to be seen if he will have any success at changing minds in the Republican caucus.

If he does succeed, you can imagine a day when the climate crisis is a unifying cause and a source of social and political cohesion. Right now, that day still seems frustratingly far in the future.

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Frederick Hewett Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Frederick Hewett is a freelance writer living in Cambridge. He writes about energy, climate, politics and Boston.

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