In the summer of 2009, a dozen Democratic members of Congress took a deep breath and put their political futures on the line, voting for historic global-warming legislation President Obama had told them was a top priority. After the bill squeaked through the House, Democrats pleaded with the White House: After taking this risk, they needed Obama to go to bat for them—and the bill—with speeches, campaign appearances, constituent outreach, anything.
He didn’t. Behind the scenes, White House advisers counseled the president not to waste his political capital on climate change. It was too risky. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled the plug on the bill in summer 2010. That fall, Republicans went hard after House Democrats who had voted for it, causing many to lose their seats—and Democrats to lose control of the House. And on the campaign trail last year, Obama followed the advice of his staff and barely mentioned climate change, to the dismay of his environmental base.
Suddenly, that’s all changed. Now, it seems, Obama can’t stop talking about climate change. In both his Inaugural Address and the State of the Union, he spoke at length and with passion about his commitment to tackling the warming climate. Last month, in a sweeping, nearly hour-long speech, Obama presented a historic set of new climate policies, centered on Environmental Protection Agency regulations to slash coal pollution. EPA’s new administrator, Gina McCarthy, will soon set off on a high-profile road trip to tout the climate rules in speeches, public meetings, town halls, and wherever else there’s a case to be made.
Meanwhile, Organizing for Action, the advocacy group retooled from Obama’s 2012 campaign machine, has launched an effort to inject global warming into the heart of national politics. The campaign strategists who once advised Obama to avoid talking about climate change will spend August sending volunteers to town-hall meetings in Republican districts, blasting the 135 members of Congress the group calls “climate deniers.”
Even Reid, the ultimate political pragmatist, has changed his tune. As wildfires swept his home state of Nevada this month, he reached out to reporters to blame the devastation on the shifting climate. “The West is being devastated by wildfires,” Reid said in the Capitol last week. “Millions of acres are burning.… Why? Because the climate has changed. The winters are shorter, the summers are hotter.”
Asked what the Senate could do in response to the wildfires, Reid said, “Talk about climate change as if it really exists, not beat around the bush.”
“You’re seeing a complete shift in politics on this issue,” said Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager and now the chairman of Organizing for Action, at an event earlier this month.
For Obama, the political risks of talking about the issue eased after November. But the president’s shift is about more than having the freedom to speak his mind. The White House is still sensitive to the political repercussions of climate change in the coming midterm elections, when Republicans hope to claim the Senate, and in 2016.
The administration is paying attention to polls showing that championing climate policies is now potentially a political winner and—perhaps more significantly—that denying the science that demonstrates human activities cause climate change, as Republican candidates did in 2012, is a clear political loser.
In particular, White House officials are heeding a poll released earlier this year by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. It found that 58 percent of registered voters say they will consider a candidate’s position on global warming when deciding how to vote; among that group, 83 percent say global warming is happening, and 65 percent believe it is caused by human activity. Just 5 percent of registered voters believe global warming isn’t real and say that belief would influence their choice for president.
“My takeaway is, there is a lot more support for climate action in general, and for specific climate policies, than elected officials seem to appreciate,” said Edward Maibach, a George Mason University professor and the director of the climate-communication center there. Strategists say the way for politicians to leverage the issue may not be to campaign as deep-green climate champions, but to instead paint opponents as anti-science. Voters—particularly, younger and moderate voters—associate climate-science denial with being ignorant and out of touch. That’s the strategy the League of Conservation Voters deployed in 2012, when it spent $15 million on a national campaign to elect “pro-climate” candidates. The group targeted what it called the “Flat Earth Five” Republican lawmakers who aggressively denied climate science. Four of the five lost their seats.
This week, the group conducted a poll, written by the Democratic Benenson Strategy Group and the Republican GS Strategy Group, of under-35 voters. It found that 79 percent would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supported the president’s climate change plan, and 73 percent would be less likely to vote for a candidate who opposed the plan.
“The research shows that the concept of being out of touch is a problem for older elected officials as they look to attract younger voters,” said Greg Strimple of GS Strategy Group. “They are looking for candidates in keeping with their generational philosophy, and this is one of those issues.”
To be sure, not all strategists agree with that assessment. For now, many Republican operatives say they see Obama’s coal-pollution rules as a huge political liability and they’re raring to once again use climate change as a campaign weapon in the midterms. Ultimately, whether the politics surrounding the issue have truly shifted will be pressure-tested at the ballot box.