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
Add to Briefcase
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.”

What We're Following See More »
BOON TO PROSECUTORS
SCOTUS Rules that Insider Trading Can’t Be “Gifted”
8 hours ago
THE DETAILS

In a unanimous decision, "the Supreme Court on Tuesday said it violates insider-trading laws for a corporate officer to make a “gift” of insider information to a relative, a decision that makes it easier for those who police Wall Street to bring prosecutions."

Source:
EFFORT LIKELY TO DIE IN COMMITTEE
Jordan Can’t Force a Floor Vote on Impeaching Koskinen
9 hours ago
THE LATEST
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan attempted to force a floor vote on impeaching IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, but "the House voted overwhelmingly to refer it to the Judiciary Committee. ... The committee will not be required to take up the resolution." Earlier, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi "made a motion to table the resolution, which the House voted against by a 180-235 margin, mostly along party lines."
Source:
AFTER THE VOTE FOR SPEAKER
Ryan: No Committee Assignments Until New Year
14 hours ago
THE DETAILS

House Speaker Paul Ryan has decreed that House members "won’t receive their committee assignments until January — after they cast a public vote on the House floor for speaker. "The move has sparked behind-the-scenes grumbling from a handful of Ryan critics, who say the delay allows him and the Speaker-aligned Steering Committee to dole out committee assignments based on political loyalty rather than merit or expertise." The roll call to elect the speaker is set for Jan. 3, the first vote of the new Congress.

Source:
EXPECTED TO FUND THE GOVERNMENT THROUGH SPRING
Funding Bill To Be Released Tuesday
1 days ago
THE LATEST

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters on Monday that the government funding bill will be released on Tuesday. The bill is the last piece of legislation Congress needs to pass before leaving for the year and is expected to fund the government through the spring. The exact time date the bill would fund the government through is unclear, though it is expected to be in April or May.

Source:
IT’S OFFICIAL
Trump to Nominate Carson to Lead HUD
1 days ago
THE LATEST

As has been rumored for a week, Donald Trump will nominate Ben Carson, his former rival, to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In a statement, Trump said, "We have talked at length about my urban renewal agenda and our message of economic revival, very much including our inner cities. Ben shares my optimism about the future of our country and is part of ensuring that this is a Presidency representing all Americans. He is a tough competitor and never gives up."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login