#ClimateChange emerges as top issue for Democrats in 2020

Students in New York joined the worldwide Climate Strike on March 15. If they’re old enough to vote next year, they’re likely to judge candidates on their climate change solutions.

We’ve come a long way from “It’s the economy, stupid.”

A new CNN poll conducted by research firm SSRS shows that 96 percent of registered Democrats list climate change as a very or somewhat important issue when evaluating potential presidential candidates. If the 2018 midterm election was about health care, 2020 may hinge on what candidates intend to do about the fact that the Earth is warming to unsustainable levels. Eighty-two percent of those polled saw it as a “very important” issue — by far the most important concern of all issues listed.

Health care was up there as a concern — 75 percent of voters in the poll saw the issue as very important, while 16 percent saw it as somewhat important, for a 91 percent total. But this may be the first time that climate change gained the No. 1 survey spot. (Another April poll of Iowa voters from Monmouth University still listed health care as the top concern, but climate change was close behind.)

Actually, climate change has been rising as an issue for voters for a while, and not just for Democrats. A poll from December 2018 asked voters about climate change, and majorities of Democrats and Republicans agreed that the world is experiencing global warming, even if some on the GOP side disagreed whether it was caused by humans. Majorities also called for government action to address the climate.

It isn’t surprising that younger voters in both parties are more concerned about climate change than their older counterparts. The difference is especially striking among Republicans; according to Pew Research, millennial Republicans are twice as likely as Republicans in the baby boomer or older generations to say the Earth is warming because of human activity. And given the higher rates at which younger voters showed up at the polls in 2018, those younger voters are going to be looking critically at how seriously candidates will take action to combat climate change.

As usual, the media are obsessed with the horse race (“Biden got a bump from his announcement!”) in each polling cycle. This is true even though this latest CNN poll is being done more than a month before the first debates, and eight months before any votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses.

Polls about which candidates are on top, however, can change quickly. Consider that this far out in past presidential election cycles, those polling at the top included Fred Thompson, Joe Lieberman, Howard Dean, Rudy Giuliani, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and other non-presidents who only got into the Oval Office with an invitation. Or, in Rudy Giuliani’s case, by serving as a crazed and laughable defender of Donald Trump.

But absent a catastrophic event such as 9/11, what voters care about can have a more lasting effect than who they care about.

How do we know? For Democratic voters in the CNN poll, climate change ranked even higher than choosing a candidate who has a good chance of beating Trump. Of all of the qualities sought in choosing the Democratic standard bearer, the ability to top Trump was very important (46 percent) or somewhat important (45 percent) for the voters polled, for a total of 92 percent.

Don’t get me wrong; that’s still of utmost importance to Democratic voters. In the CNN poll, the ability to beat Trump weighed far more heavily than experience (77 percent very important/somewhat important combination), a willingness to work with the GOP (77 percent), holding progressive positions (66 percent), representing the future of the party (64 percent), being consistent on issues (62 percent), and bringing an outsider’s view to Washington (39 percent).

But candidates hear what questions are being asked at forums. They know the questions they get when they visit early voting states. The issue has become important to voters, even though climate change was all but ignored during 2016 presidential debates.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has sought to establish himself as a climate change champion, might not be polling above 1 percent. But he’s bringing climate specifics to the forefront with his three-point plan of action, which aims for 100 percent carbon-neutral electricity, 100 percent zero emissions in vehicles, and 100 percent zero carbon pollution in all new buildings — all by 2030. He also is asking for a climate change-only debate, a proposal backed by at least one other candidate. So far, the Democratic National Committee has been noncommittal at best.

Perhaps the emphasis on the issue was the reason that climate change became the first major policy proposal from former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke. His ambitious $5 trillion proposal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and zero them out by 2050, along with Inslee’s plan, could very well be the most comprehensive climate action proposals by any of the candidates.

Of course, Inslee and O’Rourke aren’t alone. According to a wrap-up of candidates’ climate change positions by the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, “Climate change is getting unprecedented attention from the growing field of 2020 presidential candidates.” The blog by the NRDC is continually updated as candidates develop their climate change policies.

All of the Democratic candidates have ideas and proposals on climate action, the NRDC said. Those ideas include co-sponsoring the Green New Deal resolution, instituting a carbon tax, increasing investment in renewable energy, expanding green jobs, putting a moratorium on fossil fuel drilling, and much more.

The December 2018 survey about climate change was conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. That survey shows that seven in 10 Americans think that climate change is happening, and six in 10 say the warming of the Earth is being caused by humans.

A New York Times report on the survey showed that majorities in both parties (no surprise — more Democrats than Republicans) backed carbon dioxide emission limits on existing coal-fired power plants and a requirement that fossil fuel companies pay a carbon tax, then use the money to reduce other taxes. Majorities in both parties also said environmental protection is more important than economic growth when there’s a conflict between the two.

The survey also found that majorities in both parties think the government should fund research into solar and wind energy, offer tax rebates to those buying energy-efficient vehicles and solar panels, and encourage schools to teach children about the causes and consequences of global warming, and potential solutions. A majority of Democrats and Republicans believe the United States should participate in the Paris climate accord and reduce greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do. …

So while Americans have been focusing on the split between Democrats and Republicans, the more important gap may now be between Republican voters and the leaders they elected.

Donald Trump and many in the GOP are still climate deniers. Trump and the Republicans are betting that the perception of a strong economy, low unemployment, and a heated stock market will carry them to victory in 2020, so they don’t need to worry about the climate.

Most Americans, though, don’t see it that way. The majority of U.S. citizens don’t feel that their financial situations have improved and think that the GOP tax reform scam law primarily helped the wealthy. And in only three years, the Yale survey said, the percentage of Americans who say that global warming is real has grown by 10 percentage points.

Sounds like more and more Americans are taking the long view and are willing to consider some hard choices in how to save the planet.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on May 5, 2019.

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