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This Week in Climate: Is this the climate election we’ve all been waiting for?

In This Week in Climate, we take a look at how climate change will impact upcoming American elections.
Julian Moore
Nov 1, 2022 8 min read
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They call it the “political will” problem. The technical solutions to climate change are here, they will pay for themselves over time and they enjoy public support. But politicians, especially in the United States, always find a way to get in the way.

So as Americans head to the polls next week, and as climate change devastates community after community across the United States, will climate action finally become a priority for American voters?

Public Opinion

Recent polling points in different directions.

One poll that asked voters to rank climate change is as unsatisfying as it is unsurprising: Half of voters say climate is a priority in this election, while the other half doesn’t consider it at all. Furthermore, a poll last year showed partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats on adopting renewable energy is as wide as it has been in years.

Those results track with the trenchant partisanship that has characterized American politics, and certainly climate politics, for some time now. But a closer look shows that even if the partisan gap on climate issues isn’t narrowing, it may be irrelevant.

Support for wind and solar is indeed trailing off among Republicans, but a full 72% of them still support building out solar farms. That’s robust support for a proven climate measure, even if it’s a ways off from 94% of Democrats who agree.

Extreme weather events are proving to be convincing, too. The majority of Americans who have experienced extreme weather events recently see a link to climate change, including 65% of Republicans. The ‘survivors-of-climate-disasters’ constituency is guaranteed to grow in the coming years, and support for climate measures may grow with it.

Aside from partisan divides, concern for climate change is also keeping up with demographic changes in the voting populace. Nearly two-thirds of voters of color said they were more likely to vote for a candidate that supports addressing climate change. That bucks a long-time trend in political polling that showed environmental issues were near the bottom for communities of color in the United States, who typically prioritized economic and safety issues.

In short: climate is still falling behind day-to-day issues like inflation and crime, but environmental concerns are on American voters’ radar on both sides of the aisle like never before.

Risk and Reward

One troubling trend has emerged in American politics in the last five years, during which time installation of renewables has spiked across the country.

No fewer than 41 officials have faced recall votes over the support for renewables in that time, including four officials in Michigan whose political fate will be on the line next Tuesday.

The gist of these recall efforts is usually some variation of the NIMBYism that has bedevilled clean energy rollouts all over the world.

Still, these votes are concerning because they tend to happen at the local level, where partisan politics have less sway than they do for state-wide or federal elections. And in the 19 states where recalls are allowed, it generally takes several thousand signatures to get them on the ballot, portending some public support, even if they are unsuccessful.

The pseudo-good news here: they aren’t always successful. Of the fourteen officials who have faced recalls specifically over renewable projects, eight got the boot while six survived their recalls.

What’s still unclear is to what extent these recalls reflect local concerns that could show up on the ballot next week. More than a few of these efforts have been fuelled by misinformation campaigns claiming that, among other things, wind farms cause birth defects in Portuguese horses.

Those fake news drives usually come from social media pages with names like “Citizens for Clear Skies” that appear to have shadowy connections with fossil fuel-backed groups.

Taken together, the recall efforts and pro-climate poll numbers suggest that American voters are possibly more motivated to do something about climate change when it’s in someone else’s backyard. Or it means that climate denial campaigns are taking a grassroots approach, now that national polling shows their message is falling flat across the country.

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The Author

Julian Moore