State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


The Environment and the 2016 Elections

It’s the summer of 2015 and we have already been subjected to a Republican reality show disguised as a political debate. It is too early to know what will happen in next year’s elections but obviously not too soon to start thinking about the coming election cycle. In an interesting poll published in mid-July, the Pew Research Center reported that the “GOP’s favorability rating has taken a negative turn.” Republicans are seen as more extreme and are also seen as less interested than Democrats in “people like me.” While the parties are seen as relatively even on issues such as taxation, immigration and the economy, Democrats are seen as much better able to deal with environmental issues than Republicans. Pew found that 53% of their sample believed that Democrats were better able to deal with environmental issues while only 27% believed that Republicans were better at addressing these issues.

While that gives the Democrats an advantage, the poll does not examine the importance of particular issues to the public nor to the candidates seeking office. We can’t tell if environmental issues will be the focus of attention in the 2016 election, and it is clear that the environment is increasingly seen as a partisan political issue. According to another Pew poll in 2014:

“Nearly two-thirds (64%) of U.S. adults favor stricter limits on power plant emissions to address climate change, while 31% oppose such regulations…These opinions, however, vary greatly by party. Fully 78% of Democrats and those who lean Democratic back stricter emissions limits, compared with only half of Republicans and those who lean Republican. Tea Party Republicans (including independents who lean Republican) are especially resistant to stricter emissions limits for power plants, with 71% opposing stricter guidelines.”

Views about stricter limits on power plant emissions vary by gender, age and education. Women, young people and those with more formal education are most likely to favor emission limits.

While Hillary Clinton has already set ambitious goals for solar energy use, the Republican candidates have focused on other issues. Even a casual observer of the Republican presidential race would notice that issues of environment and climate change have not reached their agenda. Sustainability issues were totally ignored in last week’s debate. In contrast, President Obama has made climate change a central issue and a high priority for his last eighteen months in office. With new greenhouse gas regulations being issued and contested, it is possible that the climate issue may enter the political agenda in 2016, but it is difficult to know if that will happen. Based on the Pew poll it is probably in the Democratic Party’s interest to raise the issue, and in the Republicans’ interest to deflect attention from it.

At the state and local level, Governing Magazine counted water supply and carbon emissions as two of the top ten “legislative issues to watch in 2015.” This is an indication that apart from the strategy considerations of the coming national election, the basic needs of state and local governance indicate that environmental issues are moving to the center of the political process. These state and local priorities could influence presidential primaries and spill into the national election agenda. Efforts to avoid addressing environmental issues may not be possible this election cycle.

The drought in California will focus attention on the issue of water supply and the need to address near and long-term natural resource constraints. Issues such as the global spread of disease through travel, immigration, the global economy and our worldwide food supply will continue to generate attention as well. The climate negotiations in Paris this fall will bring further attention to environmental issues as will any intense storm that hits areas capable of attracting media attention.

The environment holds the potential to emerge as a political issue in the 2016 presidential election in part because it has gone from being a non-partisan consensus issue to a deeply partisan ideological issue. The battleground will be for the heart and mind of the independent voter. Both Pew and Gallup are reporting that around 40% of the voting population do not identify with either major party and consider themselves independents. The question is the salience or prominence of environmental issues to independents. An indication of the answer appeared in a Washington Post/ABC News poll this past spring. In an excellent analysis of that poll, Phillip Bump of the Washington Post noted the importance of intensity of view when measuring public opinion on an issue. The bottom line for intensity is to ask: To what degree would a candidate’s view on an issue be a factor that decided someone’s vote? When assessing the issue of climate change, Bump observed that:

“According to data from the new Washington Post / ABC News poll, supporters of government action are actually more likely to be in the litmus test realm. When it comes to 2016, a full 58 percent of registered voters say that they favor a candidate who will take action to fight climate change — and 38 of all voters think that position is very or extremely important…As you’d expect, there is a partisan difference in these responses, but that partisan difference reflects the overall split on enthusiasm. Democrats fervently want a candidate who supports action on addressing the warming climate; Republicans more lackadaisically oppose it. Independents, meanwhile, look more like Democrats.”

In other words, the people looking for action on climate change feel the need for government movement more intensely than those that oppose action. Moreover, independent voters—a growing and younger part of the electorate—hold views closer to the Democrats than Republicans.

Strategically, this means that candidates may find that raising environmental issues during a campaign can help them appeal to independent voters. Due to the relative indifference of their base, once they are nominated, Republicans may find it safe to support climate policy without seriously alienating their supporters. Democrats can raise environmental issues throughout their campaign, but it is unlikely that their environmental views will differentiate them from their primary opponents who are also likely to be pro-environment.

Environmental issues have always been difficult for politicians to understand. In response to poll questions, people often rank other issues higher than environmental issues. Measuring the public’s views of specific public policy issues is more complicated than pollsters want to admit. The salience of a political issue is not a one-dimensional phenomenon. It does not operate like an on and off switch. An issue may have tremendous latent appeal but is not a focus of attention because other issues are crowding it out, or because in the nature of the issue attention cycle, people get tired of paying attention. Another critical factor influencing the public’s policy priorities is their judgment on whether or not government is making reasonable progress on the issue. For example, the issue of public safety in New York City was a top ten issue throughout the 1990s; the crime rate was high and people wanted government to get it under control. The issue still remains very important to the average New Yorker today, but with crime relatively low, it does not rank high on the list of “top ten political issues.” Let the crime statistics spike upward and you can expect that the latent power of this issue will reassert itself. I suspect that environmental issues act in a similar way overall. Today, people notice that the air and water are cleaner than they were decades ago. Climate change is the exception that may prove the rule. Americans are concerned that government is not doing enough on this issue and that is reflected in these poll results.

It is obvious that there are many factors that will influence the role that environmental issues will play during the 2016 elections. I can tell you without reservation that environmental issues have moved from the periphery to the center of the political and policy agenda in the U.S. and throughout the world. In the 1970s, the environment was a fringe issue of great importance to a small number of people. Today it is a central, core issue of local, state and national governance. When President Obama meets with heads of state, climate is a key point of discussion. We have begun the transition to a renewable resource-based sustainable economy. The transition will not always be easy, and whenever we navigate the rough spots we can expect to stimulate political dialogue, controversy and conflict.

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