Environmentalists Struggle to Make Climate Change Politically Relevant

Voters almost always choose the promise of keeping electric bills low and coal jobs intact over action on climate change that could threaten both.

Tom Steyer introduces a panel during the National Clean Energy Summit 6.0 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on August 13, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images for National Clean Energy Summit 6.0)
National Journal
Alex Roarty
May 29, 2014, 3:40 p.m.

Few nat­ur­al dis­asters epi­tom­ize the polit­ic­al di­lemma fa­cing cli­mate-change act­iv­ists more than the massive gla­ci­er in West Ant­arc­tica be­gin­ning an ir­re­vers­ible slide in­to the ocean. Sci­ent­ists, who earli­er this month de­scribed the event as a mini-apo­ca­lypse, warned its dis­sol­u­tion would raise sea levels to cata­stroph­ic heights for coastal cit­ies and coun­tries.

But back on Amer­ica’s cam­paign trail, the news didn’t mer­it so much as a press re­lease from most can­did­ates. They in­stead kept up the steady drum­beat of talk about jobs, the debt, and the oc­ca­sion­al so­cial is­sue — the kind of is­sues that are more rel­ev­ant to voters’ every­day lives than ice melt­ing thou­sands of miles away.

Even as sci­ent­ists warn about the mount­ing dangers of cli­mate change, the polit­ic­al op­er­at­ives are con­front­ing the same prob­lem that has plagued the move­ment to curb car­bon di­ox­ide emis­sions for dec­ades: How can they make the dangers of glob­al warm­ing real for voters?

It’s a chal­lenge that’s tak­ing on ex­tra ur­gency this year, es­pe­cially once Pres­id­ent Obama — as ex­pec­ted — an­nounces on Monday an ag­gress­ive set of new reg­u­la­tions to curb green­house-gas emis­sions in the na­tion’s power plants. And it’s one that a flo­tilla of en­vir­on­ment­al groups, spear­headed by a $100 mil­lion ef­fort from hedge-fund bil­lion­aire Tom Stey­er, are work­ing over­time to ad­dress ahead of the midterm elec­tions. They’re con­vinced that in 2014, with the elect­or­ate start­ing to feel the ef­fects of cli­mate change, polit­ics will turn in their fa­vor in a bat­tery of key races.

How can they make the dangers of glob­al warm­ing real for voters?

“We view this is as pivotal year to demon­strate ex­actly that ques­tion: Can cli­mate be used as wedge is­sues in cam­paigns?” said Chris Le­hane, a seni­or ad­viser to the Stey­er-backed group Nex­t­Gen Cli­mate Ac­tion.

Cli­mate change has been used as a wedge is­sue in past cam­paigns, but usu­ally not in fa­vor of en­vir­on­ment­ally minded can­did­ates. Voters al­most al­ways choose the prom­ise of keep­ing elec­tric bills low and coal jobs in­tact over le­gis­lat­ive ac­tion on cli­mate change that could threaten both.

Polls re­flect those pri­or­it­ies. An early March sur­vey from Gal­lup found that only 24 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans worry about “cli­mate change” a great deal — less than half of those who said they cared a “great deal” about the eco­nomy, the debt, or the un­em­ployed. It also ranked lower than the “avail­ab­il­ity and af­ford­ab­il­ity of en­ergy,” which 37 per­cent of adults said they wor­ried about a “great deal.”

It’s why ap­prov­al of the Key­stone XL pipeline, a ma­jor battle­ground for en­vir­on­ment­al act­iv­ists, draws 2-1 sup­port. People fa­vor the prom­ise of jobs over the threat of a chan­ging cli­mate.

“A ma­jor chal­lenge fa­cing sci­ent­ists and or­gan­iz­a­tions that view glob­al warm­ing as a ma­jor threat to hu­man­ity is that av­er­age cit­izens ex­press so little con­cern about the is­sue,” Gal­lup wrote in con­clu­sion to its March poll.

Strategists aligned with the en­vir­on­ment­al groups are aware of what the polls num­bers say — they just also think that they’re about to ready to change. Their con­fid­ence stems from what they de­scribe as an un­for­tu­nate para­dox: As cli­mate change gets worse, people are more likely to feel its ef­fects.

“I think when people are re­minded of drought and su­per­storms, su­per tor­nadoes, rising sea levels, these kind of things, they’re not as big ab­strac­tions as they were 10 years ago,” said Mark Longabaugh, a Demo­crat­ic strategist who has worked for years with en­vir­on­ment­al groups.

A half dozen strategists who have worked in the en­vir­on­ment­al move­ment all said an es­sen­tial part of any ef­fect­ive mes­sage will show how cli­mate change can be real in people’s every­day lives. It’s the only way a voter will buy in­to it as a genu­ine threat, in­clud­ing to a fam­ily’s pock­et­books, they say. In ef­fect, turn­ing something ab­stract in­to something that’s very real.

“You don’t talk about but­ter­flies, you don’t talk about po­lar bears, you talk about their health and their fam­ily’s eco­nom­ic se­cur­ity,” said Le­hane.

He ad­ded: “Moth­er Nature has a vote, she’s ex­er­cising her vote, and she’s ex­er­cising her vote in a way that dir­ectly im­pact fam­ily eco­nom­ics and fam­ily se­cur­ity.”

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