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Climate crisis struggles to influence US election

October 30, 2020

Despite raging wildfires and a historically destructive hurricane season, the climate crisis ranks low as an election issue, way behind the economy and COVID-19. But could climate yet decide the vote?

Demonstrations for climate emergency in New York City
Image: picture-alliance/Pacific Press/E. McGregor

A day after voters go to the polls to elect the next president, the US will officially withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. With Joe Biden pledging to immediately reverse Donald Trump's exit from the landmark climate accord, the stage had been set for climate to define the election. But then came COVID-19. 

Though the presidential candidates sparred on climate change during their final debate, only 42% of voters say climate will be very important to their vote, well behind the economy (79%), health care (68%) and the coronavirus pandemic (62%), according to a Pew Research poll.

A marginalized issue that could yet decide the election

As the pandemic worsens, these interconnected issues have distracted from the existential threat of the climate crisis, even in regions affected by extreme fires and a record hurricane season. A University of Southern California poll published in September, at the peak of the West Coast wildfires, found that only 4% of eligible voters considered climate change to be their biggest concern when voting — in contrast to 33% of respondents who said the coronavirus crisis-hit economy was their top voting priority.

Climate skeptics such as Fox News commentator Steve Milloy have rejoiced in the seeming drop-off in climate concern.   

Though climate may not be a key election issue, there has in fact been a broader growth in concern about the climate in the United States. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in summer found that 62% of Americans see climate change as a major threat, up from 44% who said that in 2009 and marking a 2 point rise since January — despite the pandemic.

For this reason Edward Maibach, the director of George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication in Washington, DC, is hopeful that climate will have more influence on the election than polls suggest.

"An increasing number of American voters say that the candidate’s positions on climate change will influence their vote for president this year," he told DW, referring to a near 10 percentage points increase since the 2016 election. 

Though climate is not dominating the actual election issue agenda, Maibach believes it could yet decide the next president.

"It’s true that while only a minority of voters say climate change will be important in determining their vote this year, even a tiny fraction of that minority have the potential to determine the outcome of the election," he said, a reference to the razor-thin margins in swing states that decided the 2016 election.

Indeed, despite the glee among Trump-supporting climate deniers that global heating is a minor election issue, Joe Biden is contrasting his commitment to strong climate action as a way to sway votes in the final days of the election. 

Communicating climate during a pandemic

Since the coronavirus outbreak, climate campaigners around the world have been bracing for a declining focus on the climate crisis issue.

"Campaigners face a constrained ability to protest, a delayed policy process, and crucially, citizens overwhelmed by more immediate concerns of health, jobs and livelihoods," state Climate Outreach in its reportCommunicating climate change during the COVID-19 crisis.

Released in May by the UK climate communications group, the report also pointed out that "citizens who are already struggling emotionally, socially or financially are not likely to have the capacity to think about another problem." 

Edward Maibach disagrees with this view, saying that "most people are fully capable of dealing with more than one concern at a time."

survey in April by Maibach's own George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication confirmed overwhelming voter concern about global warming, concluding that there is not a "finite pool of worry," as social scientists have suggested. 

Why then is climate not registering as a very important election issue in these polls? The answer might lie in America's extreme two-party tribalism.  

Infografik - Election issues - EN

'The most polarized country in the world on climate change'

The 2020 US election is the most polarized in terms of climate change concern, says Alec Tyson, associate director of research at Pew Research Center. Only 11% of Trump supporters say climate change is very important to their vote, the issue ranking last in importance out of 12 issues. This compares to 68% of Biden voters — though climate is outranked by racial and ethnic inequality (76%), among other concerns.

The widespread lack of concern about climate change among Trump supporters has helped sideline the issue, Tyson argues. "Issues that are important to both campaigns, where they are vigorously engaged with one another, are going to get more visibility," he said.

Climate is far less polarized in Britain, for example, and even Germany — despite a rising tide of climate denialism pushed by far right political parties like the Alternative for Germany (AfD) — according to Susie Wang, a researcher at Climate Outreach. After over a decade of work communicating climate change issues to center-right and conservative voters in the UK to avoid polarization, the broad British political spectrum that was so divided on the issue of Brexit is more unified on climate action.

By contrast, the climate message in the US can fall victim to a stark political partisanship that "pushes people apart rather than bring them together," Wang told DW. This ideological divide "doesn't leave any space" for conservatives to state their support for climate change action.

"The US is probably the most polarized country in the world on climate change," said Wang.

A girl and older, taller man join fists
Meanwhile, former President Barack Obama meets with climate activist Greta Thunberg as a symbol of climate change's importance for Democratic voters Image: picture-alliance/dpa/The Obama Foundation
Mans hold up sign reading Climate Warming is a communist hoax
Climate polarization: Climate deniers gather in Oregon to oppose climate change legislationImage: Imago Images/ZUMA Press/R. Loznak

Could bipartisanship on climate be possible?

Nonetheless, Tyson says that Republicans and Democrats do in fact cross over on some environmental issues. The plan to give a tax credit to businesses for developing carbon capture and storage, for example, has 70% and 90% support among Republicans and Democrats respectively, he explains.

Yet extreme polarization continues to limit the impact of a climate issue that also needs to overcome broader anxieties.

"While people are still concerned about climate change, they are now understandably also concerned about other issues —  health, whether they have a job, ongoing pressures of lockdown such as social isolation", said Susie Wang. "In this context, their sense of efficacy  —  the sense that they can do something that makes a difference  —  might drop."

Based on recent polls in the UK and other countries, Wang also speculates that the pandemic response might reshape how people view the climate crisis.

"Because of COVID-19, people may realize that together, individual actions can make a difference, and governments can mobilize quickly to address a global problem," she said.

However, given the discord in mobilization efforts on both COVID-19 and the climate crisis, it remains to be seen whether a divided America can unite post-election to address either of these crises.


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Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.