Only 6 percent of registered voters named climate change as the most important issue that will decide their vote for president, according to a July Quinnipiac University poll. But the presidential election of 2016 will determine the United States’ role in confronting this global challenge, and managing the impacts of climate change for years to come.
In preparation for the Paris climate talks in December, 150 countries have submitted commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions after 2020. This year’s climate conference is critical, as new research has found that even a 1.5˚C to 2˚C increase in average global temperature could trigger the collapse of the Antarctic ice shelves, resulting in possible sea level rise of 10 meters (approximately 33 feet) for hundreds to thousands of years.
A new University of Texas poll found that 76 percent of Americans (an increase of 8 percent from one year ago) now believe climate change is occurring, including 59 percent of Republicans. Will the growing numbers of believers affect the election?
“If candidates are paying close attention to where the American public is on issues like climate change, it certainly may,” said Sheril Kirshenbaum, director of the University of Texas Energy Poll. “Our data suggests that energy topics will be important to voters headed into November 2016.”
As well, “…issues like climate change, habitat destruction and pollution are of interest to the public, and big majorities favor protecting the environment—usually around three-quarters of the total population,” said Steve Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “Now, whether it gets reflected in a political campaign is another question.”
Primary voters, both Republican and Democratic, tend to be more at the extremes of their party than at the center. In the Republican primary campaign there has been little, if any, discussion of environment, and what there is has usually been in support of exploiting fossil fuels and fracking. On the Democratic side, there is a great deal of discussion about climate change and the importance of sustainability.
“The parties seem very split on climate change right now,” said Robert Erikson, a political science professor at Columbia University. “It would take a surge in public support for recognizing and dealing with the problem to motivate the GOP candidates to shift.”
But the Republican base is moving towards acknowledging climate change and its effects. “I think what’s changing their view is that the science over the last 20 years has become very, very clear,” said Cohen. “Also you see events like Hurricane Sandy, the flooding in South Carolina, the forest fires in the West and the drought in California. These are all objective conditions that clearly have been exacerbated by climate change.”
Where do the presidential candidates stand today on these issues?
Jeb Bush (former governor of Florida) believes that climate change is real, but says that the science is not clear about what proportion of global warming is manmade. While he has called for some action on climate change, he has not said how he would combat it. He supports using all sources of energy including nuclear, natural gas, coal and renewables and would phase out all energy tax credits to let the market pick winners and losers. Bush supports the Keystone XL pipeline. If elected, he would lift the ban on oil and natural gas exports and reverse the EPA’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.
Ben Carson (retired neurosurgeon) believes that climate change is happening in the sense that there’s “always going to be either cooling or warming going on” and has called the climate debate “irrelevant.” While he has no plans to combat climate change, he does believe it’s important to protect the environment. If elected, he would approve the Keystone XL pipeline and develop oil resources while also investing in renewable resources; however, he would not support any government subsidies because he feels they interfere with the free market.
Chris Christie (governor of New Jersey) believes manmade climate change is real but has not put forth any proposals to reduce emissions. If elected, he would proceed with the Keystone XL pipeline, end the ban on crude oil exports and invest in research into new technologies. He supports renewable energy that is appropriate for each state’s particular geography and touts New Jersey as the country’s third largest solar energy producer. However, in 2011, he withdrew New Jersey from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a northeast cap and trade program.
Ted Cruz (U.S. senator from Texas) says that the data and facts do not support climate change and has called the theory that human activity causes it “pseudoscientific.” He has accused government researchers of “cooking the books” on climate change to have a basis for controlling the economy and energy industry. Cruz took the No Climate Tax pledge (created by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers) not to support any legislation on climate change that includes an increase in taxes. If elected, he would construct the Keystone XL pipeline and do away with all energy subsidies to let the market decide.
Carly Fiorina (former CEO of Hewlett Packard) acknowledges that manmade climate change is occurring, but does not believe it is a pressing issue and has not put forth any plans to combat it. She supports the Keystone XL pipeline, and believes we must develop all sources of energy including nuclear and gas. According to Fiorina, environmental regulations will not make any difference at all in fighting climate change and will only hurt the economy; rather the answer lies in innovation, especially clean coal. She supports tax credits for renewable energy.
Jim Gilmore (former Governor of Virginia) believes climate change is real and manmade and has called for some action against it, but has not put forth any proposal to reduce emissions. He supports the Keystone XL pipeline, and oil drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. If elected, he would encourage private investment into alternative fuels and energy, and clean coal technology.
Lindsey Graham (U.S. senator from South Carolina) believes climate change is occurring and that human activity has contributed to it. He has said he would take action against it in a business-friendly way that supports an all-of-the-above energy policy including oil, gas, nuclear and investment in renewable energy. He voted against the Production Tax Credit, a tax credit for companies that generate electricity from renewable energy (which has been temporarily extended). Graham also voted against a national goal of getting 25 percent of electricity from renewables by 2025. He supports the Keystone XL pipeline.
Mike Huckabee (former governor of Arkansas) does not believe climate change is real or manmade and would not call for action against it if elected. He has said, “Science is not as settled” on climate change as it is on other things. Huckabee advocates an all-of-the-above energy policy that includes oil and gas, nuclear and renewable energy, and emphasizes using the resources we have.
Bobby Jindal (governor of Louisiana) believes in manmade climate change and has called for action against it. He believes the best way to combat climate change is to work in concert with other major economies to promote smart policies, and develop strategies to adapt to climate change. If elected, Jindal would develop more oil and gas resources as well as nuclear power, approve the Keystone XL pipeline and roll back the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. He would encourage technological innovation of renewables and phase out subsidies so that all energy sources compete on a level playing field.
John Kasich (governor of Ohio) believes climate change is real and manmade and has called for action against it, but has not said how he would combat climate change if elected. While he feels renewable energy should be a large part of our future energy mix and encourages research into new technologies, he supports an all-of-the-above energy policy, which includes approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and oil drilling on federal lands. Kasich opposes the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and would undo all federal fracking regulations.
George Pataki (former governor of New York), an environmental lawyer, believes manmade climate change is real and has called for action against it, but he supports private and market-based initiatives rather than government regulations to reduce carbon emissions. Pataki would develop renewable energy sources and technology, as well as innovations that can make fossil fuels cleaner. He opposes extending the Production Tax Credit and is against other exemptions, but would work on permitting issues and storage capacity to help develop wind energy.
Rand Paul (U.S. senator from Kentucky) believes climate change is happening, but not that humans have contributed to it, and has not said he would do anything to combat climate change, if elected. Paul took the Americans for Prosperity’s No Climate Tax pledge. He supports the Keystone XL pipeline and voted against a national goal of 25 percent of electricity from renewables by 2025, against legislation supporting the installation of solar panels, and against renewing the Production Tax Credit to support renewable energy.
Marco Rubio (junior U.S. senator from Florida) believes climate change is happening, but not that it is caused by man. “And I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy,” he has said. Rubio supports the Keystone XL pipeline and offshore oil and gas drilling. If elected, he would lift the ban on oil exports, stop the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, and nullify federal regulations on fracking. He took the No Climate Tax pledge and voted against extending the Production Tax Credit.
Rick Santorum (former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania) believes climate change is real, but not that it is manmade. If elected, he would not do anything about it, because he believes there is nothing the United States can do. “Everything that is being considered by the United States will have almost—well, not almost, but zero impact on it given what’s going on in the rest of the world,” he has said. Santorum supports the Keystone XL pipeline.
Donald Trump (real estate developer) doesn’t believe in climate change and asserts that the changes we see are actually just weather, unaffected by human actions. He puts climate change low on the list of problems we need to address. In 2012, Trump said global warming was a hoax created by China to make U.S. manufacturing uncompetitive. He supports regulating air pollution.
Hillary Clinton (former U.S. senator from New York and secretary of state) believes climate change is real and manmade. She has called it “the most consequential, urgent, sweeping collection of challenges we face as a nation and a world.” Clinton unveiled a plan that would install half a billion solar panels across the country by 2020 (a 700 percent increase in solar capacity); and expand renewable energy (including geothermal and hydro) sufficiently to produce 33 percent of U.S. electricity by 2027. Her Clean Energy Challenge, partnering with states, cities and communities, will include incentives, competitions, and investment in transmission and R&D. Clinton is opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline and Arctic drilling and supports extending the Production Tax Credit.
Martin O’Malley (former governor of Maryland) acknowledges that climate change is happening and believes it is manmade. He has a plan to move the U.S. to renewable energy completely by 2050, double energy efficiency within 15 years, invest in clean energy infrastructure, and create a clean energy job corps to retrofit and restore communities and the environment. If elected, O’Malley would support local renewable energy generation and modernize the electric grid. He supports a long-term extension of the Production Tax Credit.
Bernie Sanders (U.S. senator from Vermont) believes climate change is real and manmade. He has called it “the single greatest threat facing the planet.” He and Sen. Barbara Boxer introduced climate change legislation to tax carbon and methane emissions, and he secured $3.2 billion in the economic stimulus package for greenhouse gas emission-reduction grants. Sanders voted for the national goal of 25 percent of electricity from renewables by 2025 and for the extension of the Production Tax Credit. He led the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, and opposes fracking and Arctic drilling.
“We are hearing a lot more about climate change before this presidential election than we did in 2008 and 2012 by both parties,” said Kirshenbaum, of the University of Texas Energy Poll. “It’s coming up in speeches, interviews and debates. So I expect climate change will play a more prominent role in the campaigns throughout the next year for all candidates.”
The issues of climate change and sustainability will likely be more high-profile during the general election. “It will be the Democrats that want to raise it because of the intensity of opinion of people who think that climate and sustainability are big issues,” said Cohen. “If you feel it’s an issue, you really feel it intensely. If you don’t believe it’s an issue, you’re more apathetic. So the mobilizable vote in the general election will be for advocates of sustainability and protection.”
Meanwhile, 45 Republican and Democratic senior politicians, military commanders, security advisors and diplomats just signed an open letter calling for global action on climate change because it is a serious threat to national security. “America’s elected leaders and private sector must think past tomorrow to focus on this growing problem and take action at home and abroad,” the letter said.
Could climate change be the critical factor in determining our next president? The battle for the election is always in the political center, for the independent voters.
“Independent voters overwhelmingly believe that climate is an important issue, said Cohen. “They may come out to vote because of this issue. And if it’s a tight election, if a group of people has an intensely felt issue, it could turn the election. Climate change could be the issue that gives the Democrats the White House again.”
On Oct. 29 from 6 to 7:30pm, the Earth Institute will host an event on Sustainability and Climate Change in the 2016 Presidential Race featuring Steve Cohen and William Eimicke, director of the Picker Center for Executive Education; and Emily Lloyd, commissioner, New York City Department of Environmental Protection. The panel will be moderated by Chuck Todd, political director of NBC News and moderator of Meet the Press. Registration is required.