Why It Finally Makes Political Sense to Talk About Climate Change

New polls show that voters increasingly view climate global-warming deniers as cranks. The White House is paying attention.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks at the center for American Progress Action Fund in Washington, Monday, July 15, 2013. Reid spoke about ending the current gridlock in the Senate that according to him is harming the nation's ability to address key challenges. 
Coral Davenport
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Coral Davenport
July 25, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

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.

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