Climate Change Poised to Play Major Role in 2020 Elections

May 6, 2019

The majority of Americans - across party lines - support more funding for renewable energy research and tax incentives for solar panel purchases.
Credit Vera Kratochvil / CCO 1.0 Public Domain

A new CNN poll finds that climate change is the most prevalent issue on the minds of Democratic voters. Eighty two percent of survey respondents told CNN that they think it is very important that the Democratic for president support taking aggressive action to slow the effects of climate change. Not even universal healthcare garnered a “very important” rating from that many prospective voters.

And, sure enough, some would-be Democratic nominees are making climate change a signature issue. Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, and Elizabeth Warren have all outlined plans.

“I think that the current data suggests - and certainly the behavior of current candidates for the Democratic nomination strongly suggests - that this will be the first national election where climate change ends up playing a major role,” said Ed Maibach, a university professor at George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication.

Over the past five years, Americans’ understanding of climate change has transformed. Previously, most Americans viewed it as a distant problem – one likely to affect ecosystems or other people in other places, sometime in the future. Now, Maibach says, polling shows that about half of Americans understand climate change as a “here-now-us problem.”

And, contrary to popular belief, it’s not only Democrats who are concerned about climate change and want to see some sort of government action.

“Actually, the bigger divide is not between liberals and conservatives, it's between moderate Republicans and conservative Republicans,” Maibach said. “The majority of moderate Republicans actually do accept that climate change is happening and are growing increasingly concerned about it.”

What’s more, Maibach says there’s an under-recognized consensus among Americans across the political spectrum that we should be pursuing policies that move us away from a fossil fuel-based energy system, toward a cleaner, renewable energy system. That includes emissions-limiting regulations, carbon pricing, investment in renewable energy research and development, and incentives for solar panel and electric car adoption.

“Almost regardless of the policy, and almost regardless of how we ask the question, it's generally about seven out of ten Americans who say that they support climate solutions,” Maibach said. “And the really surprising thing is that there is less of a divide between conservatives and liberals on support for climate policy than there is on support for whether or not human caused climate change is even happening.”

Once a specific policy proposal enters the political arena, though, public opinion can shift based on who is touting it, and who is attacking it. A prime example is the Green New Deal. Last December, the underlying idea enjoyed the support of eight out of ten Americans, including over half of Republicans surveyed. But Maibach says they have new data showing that Republican support has dropped since the proposal became the target of criticism from conservative politicians and media outlets.

Still, Maibach says that public sentiment has reached a point where climate action is likely to be a vote-winner - not only for Democratic candidates, but also for Republicans, especially those interested in appealing to younger conservatives. And that means we’re likely to hear a lot more on the topic in the next eighteen months.