Politicians in the United States have never been able to rely on climate concerns to turn out voters, or change their behavior at the ballot box.
But something started to change in recent elections.
In this year’s Iowa Democratic caucus, more than one-fifth of voters said climate was the most important factor when deciding which candidate to support, second only to healthcare. It’s the culmination of a trend. In 2016, just 2% of likely voters listed climate or the environment as their highest priority. In the 2018 midterms, 7% of exit poll voters did. Last year, it hit 12%.
“[This year] is undoubtedly the first presidential election where climate will be a top priority for a huge bloc of voters,” says Nathaniel Stinnett, the founder of the nonprofit Environmental Voter Project, a non-partisan group mobilizing voters. “Politicians ignore them at their peril.”
That opportunity—or liability—is already shaping Democratic campaigns. Washington governor Jay Inslee and billionaire Tom Steyer both ran on climate as their signature issue. Most candidates repeatedly mentioned climate change during debates, despite the fact that less than 10% of questions raised the issue. CNN even aired its own eight-hour town hall with candidates devoted exclusively to climate change.
Kevin Curtis, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s political action fund, says this is the first time climate has dominated the discussion in Democratic primaries. “All the candidates felt the need to be aggressive on climate,” he said by phone. “They’re doing this because the votes are there.”
This likely wasn’t far from mind when the presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden asked US senator Kamala Harris to be his vice president on Aug. 12. Few of the potential picks had a stronger record than Harris on this issue.
Harris, the former attorney general of California, made it clear during the campaign she would hold fossil fuel companies’ feet to the fire after making a career suing fossil fuel companies on grounds of environmental justice (as San Francisco’s district attorney, she set up the city’s first environmental justice unit). The ex-prosecutor has promised to push for passage of the Green New Deal under her $10 trillion climate plan, abolishing the Senate filibuster if necessary, and go after oil and gas firms fueling rising greenhouse gas emissions, at CNN’s climate town hall last September. She wants to eliminate net emissions in the US by 2045.
With climate change now ranking as “very important” to 42% of all registered voters, Harris’s selection may have consolidated a new, powerful constituency behind the Biden campaign, and the rise of a new force in American politics.
The voters most motivated by climate look like the fastest-growing segments of the electorate. Millennials, women, people of color, and those earning less than $50,000 annually are all demographics listing climate as their top priority in elections, according to the Environmental Voter Project.
Their political identity is being driven by people’s first-hand experience of climate change. People can feel winters warming (or barely coming at all). Floods and hurricanes and wildfires have intensified. In San Francisco, residents must buy masks to filter out summer wildfire smoke. Miami residents watch downtown streets inundated by high tides. Corn farmers in the midwest have crops wiped out year after year. The Midwest has just had its wettest 12 months ever.
That’s driven the desire for climate action into the mainstream. Two-thirds of US adults now say the federal government must do more to protect the climate, equal to clean air and water. Only opinions on gay marriage have shifted faster, says one pollster.
But the issue remains deeply, deeply partisan. Donald Trump and other GOP leaders’ dismissal of climate change have pushed most of the climate camp into the Democratic party. Since 2015, those who say climate change should be a top priority for Congress and the White House has risen from 46% to 78%, according to the Pew Research Center. Among Republicans, the share has remained flat at 21%. Among Trump supporters, it’s even lower.
Yet climate-concerned voters haven’t yet proven to be a reliable voting bloc, says Alec Tyson of Pew Research Center. Despite tantalizing signs in the primaries, most voters who rank climate high on their list also sit squarely within the core constituency of the Democratic party. Confirming climate change is the motivation prompting them to vote or pick a candidate is difficult to disentangle in the data.
That is the aim of the Environmental Voter Project’s Stinnett, who wants to turn millions of politically disengaged environmentalists into “super-voters” using voter profile data, behavioral messaging, and volunteer outreach. The nonprofit claims to have created more than 253,000 such voters since 2016 who vote at much higher rates based on their climate convictions.
EVP is taking a cue from an unlikely source: the National Rifle Association. The gun advocacy group claims around 5 million members (although the true number is disputed) and a $250 million annual budget (of which just a tiny fraction of its budget, around 1%, is spent on lobbying). For the NRA, power is not money or the length of its roster: What matters is how well it mobilizes a relatively few but fervently devoted members.
NRA members write and call politicians at far higher rates than other interest groups (including other gun owners), and often cast votes on gun issues alone. That has allowed them to sway primary elections in the Republican party, giving the organization an outsize control over national politics out of step with the opinions of a majority of Americans, and even most gun owners.
Stinnett says if voters concerned about climate engage in the political process at levels resembling the NRA membership, it would be a political revolution in American politics. The Environmental Voter Project is now devoting itself to mobilizing non-voting environmentalists in local, state, and federal elections.
A ticket with a climate hawk like Harris might bring some of those non-voting environmentalists off the sidelines.
“If environmentalists start voting at the rate NRA members do, nobody will be able to stop us,” says Stinnett.