Why climate change isn't a winning issue in US politics

There are signs that most Americans are sympathetic to the goals of the climate change talks in Paris, but the issue probably won't influence their 2016 vote.

Thibault Camus/AP
President Obama (l.) shares a joke with French President François Hollande (r.) as Mr. Obama is in Paris for a two-day visit to the United Nations' climate change conference.

Facing the prospect of a historic agreement at international climate change talks that formally began Monday in Paris, House majority leader Kevin McCarthy (R) of California had a message: We're not paying for it.

The statement that the Republican-led House would block funds for a potential post-Paris climate plan was a clear reminder that little has changed in the American politics of climate change.

There are small signs of movement. Most of the 2016 candidates in both parties have said they believe climate change is real – though some Republicans question whether human activity is responsible for it. That's a marked shift from previous elections, in particular 2012, when both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney almost completely avoided the subject.

But in general, climate change is not seen as a winning issue politically. While a New York Times/CBS News poll released on Monday found that two-thirds of Americans support the United States joining a binding international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it's a low priority.

A Gallup poll from early August found that only 3 percent of respondents said "Environment/Pollution" was the most important problem facing the country. As a result, partisan divides will likely keep the climate debate to a peripheral wedge issue in the upcoming election.

"If you ask people if they think climate change is an important issue they'll say yes, but if you think of it comparatively to other important issues it kind of falls to the wayside," says Geoffrey Skelley, a spokesman for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

While it might be a "net plus" for candidates to broadly support the issue, given public sentiment, "it's not as important to Americans right now as the bread-and-butter issues," adds Geoffrey Feinberg, research director at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

"I don't think it’ll be a pivotal issue," he adds. "As in all past elections the economy, jobs, maybe now terrorism, these things will continue to be the most important issues." 

The Times/CBS poll shows that a slim majority of Republicans are opposed to a climate deal, and the dynamics of the presidential primary season make that opposition important.

"Even if the poll suggests that some Republicans are more concerned about climate change, that doesn't mean the people picking the next GOP nominee will be," Mr. Skelley adds in an e-mail to the Monitor.

Come the general election, the dynamics could shift again, with Democrats attacking the Republican nominee, who will most likely reject the interventionist climate policy that President Obama has now cemented in his legacy

"Democrats will try to use it," says Skelley, "but as a broad issue that will decide the election, or play a role in deciding the election, that seems unlikely."

The Paris talks could figure into the calculus, however, says Mr. Feinberg.

"I think there will be an agreement, and once there is an agreement that's going to shift the tone," he adds. "When every country gets on the same page that's just another piece of evidence that this is something to be taken seriously."

Advocates for climate change action suggest that time is on their side. They say that the climate will continue to change with predicted effects – from droughts and heat waves to extreme flooding and sea level rise – and that will raise the political importance of the issue. 

"One of the fundamental problems with climate change is it's created everywhere and the impact is in the future," says Steve Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. "Our [political] system is not geared to those issues, it's geared to local issues that you can see, touch, and smell."

But "people are starting to pay more attention," and that will "be reflected in the politics of the next 20 years," he says.

For his part, Representative McCarthy says climate pacts aren't "the best use of our money" and argues that transitioning to natural gas is a better way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

A Pew poll in June suggests that Millennials are more concerned about climate issues than older generations – though other surveys challenge that assertion

Dr. Cohen at Columbia University likens the potential impact to what has occurred with the gay marriage debate in recent years, which appears to have been driven in large part by generational change.

"It had nothing to do with political parties. It had to do with everyone in society, as gay people came out of the closet, realizing they knew somebody [who was gay], and that it's not the issue they thought it was," he adds. "I think we’re going to see similar things with climate change."

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