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Electoral Politics and Environmental Sustainability

A year from now we will have a new president-elect, and will know the profile of the U.S. federal government for the next several years. The issues of environmental protection and a sustainable, renewable economy are not likely to play heavily in the Republican 2016 presidential nominating campaign, since other issues such as terrorism, taxes, character, immigration and the size of government will continue to dominate. Appeals to the party’s extreme right wing base assure that we will continue to hear extreme language and strange conspiracy theories. Among Democrats the issues of income distribution, the economy, racial justice and national security will continue to define a campaign that may largely boil down to the degree to which the folks who vote in Democratic primaries are willing to trust Hillary Clinton. But it is possible that the issue of a renewable resource based economy could become salient in the fall general election campaign. The Republican candidate may try to keep sustainability off the agenda, but the Democratic candidate will probably use the issue to appeal to independent voters. Regardless, the importance of sustainability depends on the way the issue is framed.

If environmental protection is defined as an issue of the big, intrusive government interfering in free enterprise, then the partisan divide of the past several decades will be reinforced and the issue will remain divisive. On the other hand, if the issue is redefined as central to the modernization of America’s infrastructure and economic base, it could reinforce the growing consensus we are seeing for environmental protection in national polls. A wide cross-section of Americans are concerned about our deteriorating energy, transportation and water infrastructure. We are also concerned about maintaining our technological edge. While Democrats have typically been more favorable to environmental protection than Republicans, large majorities in both parties supported environmental protection throughout the last three decades of the twentieth century. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that hyper-partisanship extended to environmental issues and in the 21st century there have been no new federal environmental statutes. New climate legislation failed during President Obama’s first term, and Clean Air Act provisions first enacted in 1970 are now the basis of American climate policy. Technology has been revolutionized in the 21st century, but the structure of American environmental law is decades-old. Similarly our roads, rails, airports, bridges, water systems and energy grid are showing signs of disinvestment and neglect. Wedding environment with infrastructure investment could build a broad, bipartisan coalition.

Recent public opinion polls indicate that a majority of Republicans once again support environmental protection, including public policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is being driven by young people and is a strong indication of a social change in environmental perceptions and values that transcend partisan politics. The internet and the global media have ensured that images of soot-filled skies and toxic rivers in China are instantly shared around the world. Drought in California, floods on the shores of Long Island and New Jersey, doctored software in Volkswagen cars, radioactive contamination in Fukushima and the ecological impact of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico are facts of the modern world that young people experience over and over again in viral videos on their smart phones. In addition young folks are stuck in endless traffic, can’t afford to buy homes and struggle to pay massive student debt. These trends have created a widespread view that the next generation of Americans will live in a less wealthy, limited and finite world. While younger voters do not turn out to vote as often as older voters, they can be mobilized on occasion, and might vote for a candidate who promises to build a modern, sustainable economy.

Traditional end-of-pipeline regulations on pollution will have little appeal to anyone, but investment incentives in green technology for sustainable products, renewable energy, smart grids, and electric vehicles would stimulate sustainable economic growth. That type of approach could resonate with younger voters. I emphasize the cultural change because while it is strongest in young people, it extends into other parts of the electorate. It is not always seen as environmental protection alone, it includes both an attraction to new technology such as interesting new software applications, but also an emphasis on wellness for individuals and for families. We see this in increased attention to diet, nutrition, exercise and health care. People want to know what is in the air they are breathing, the water they are drinking and the food they are eating. As we become more urban and move further and further from the creation of food, clothing and shelter, we want to be sure that those necessities are safe for our use. This opens the electorate to support reasonable controls and regulation on air, food and water.

None of the current presidential candidates in either party seem naturally suited to exploiting these trends, but political messages are among the world’s most malleable phenomena. Presidential campaigns read polling data like tea leaves and try to predict which combination of issues creates the image that will allow their team to win. I would be very surprised if the trends I am discussing are not part of the conversation in more sophisticated campaign strategy sessions.

The spending bill passed last week by a Congress willing to compromise may well be a reflection of these new social and cultural trends. Renewable energy tax credits were restored for five years and riders limiting environmental protection were eliminated in exchange for lifting the ban on oil exports. If the renewable energy economy takes off, the oil exports will have little impact on anyone, and in the short term, if the global supply of oil increases, lower oil prices may help reduce the use of coal- the dirtiest fuel we have. But a compromise that maintains clean energy and environmental protection is an indication that the new Republican leader Paul Ryan can read the same trends that I am reading, and that may create the basis for a new consensus on the politics of sustainability.

It is also interesting to note that in the new federal budget, science funding was increased significantly for the first time since the stimulus package of the president’s first term. The political consensus for sustainability that could emerge might be based on increased funding for the science of renewable energy, battery technology, energy efficiency and smart grids. It could also include incentives for private sector investment to commercialize new energy technologies, and tax expenditures that make it easier for consumers to adopt these new technologies.

A high tech, sustainable economy built by a public-private partnership would have great appeal, although possibly not to the folks running for the Republican presidential nomination. Discussing the Paris climate accord in the New York Timeslast week, Thomas Kaplan observed that:

“The near-silence among Republicans is a striking illustration of the vastly different roles that climate change is playing in the presidential primaries for the two major parties. In some ways, the ardor among Democrats to address it — and the lack of interest among Republicans in discussing it — makes it seem as if the parties are on different planets.”

Kaplan notes that both Ted Cruz and Donald Trump consider climate science a hoax based on “pseudoscience.” While the other Republican candidates seem to acknowledge the issue, they do not consider it much of a priority. But these anti-environmental sentiments could fade when one of these candidates wins the Republican presidential nomination.

The pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination requires appeal to an extreme right wing base that sees the world differently than the majority of Americans. This is particularly true on issues like immigration and the environment. As the nation becomes less white and as young people move into the electorate, Republicans face the need to appeal to a changing electorate. The Congressional wing of the party just made a move in that direction in the budget deal. The Republicans running for president will continue to resist as they appeal to the fringe group that dominates their nomination process.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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