The Climate Counts

(Photo: AP/Evan Vucci)

Demonstrators gather in front of the White House on November 6, 2015, to celebrate President Obama's rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Lost in the recent tit-for-tat between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders over the former secretary of state’s fossil fuel–industry contributions is the real reason the dispute matters: Environmental issues are gaining traction with voters, and could resonate powerfully in 2016.

Sanders has sought to make hay out of Clinton’s supposed fossil-fuel ties—and she has reacted heatedly—precisely because both candidates know that fights over a wide range of hot-button environmental issues—from fracking to the Keystone XL pipeline, power plant rules, and dirty water in Flint, Michigan—have inflamed grassroots passions and are mobilizing voters.

It’s not just Democrats who are agitated over the environment. Polls show that most Americans now support stricter limits on greenhouse gases and on power plants; regard alternative energy development as more important than fossil-fuel exploration; and say environmental policies should put protecting the planet ahead of economic growth.

All of that is bad news for Republicans, who have capitalized on conservative opposition to environmental regulation in recent elections, but who may soon find themselves on the defensive. Environmental groups such as the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club have steadily ramped up their political engagement and expenditures in recent years, and are planning unprecedented voter mobilization efforts in 2016.

“Members of Congress or presidential candidates who deny climate change do so at their peril,” says Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters. The League spent $19 million in the 2014 midterms through its PAC and advocacy wings, and raised close to $6 million for state and federal candidates, in both direct and bundled contributions, through a “GiveGreen” program that it spearheads.

Environmental political spending has shot up in recent elections, thanks in part to the millions that California hedge fund manager Tom Steyer has pumped into the super PAC NextGen Climate Action, which spent $74 million in the midterms. Steyer got little return on his investment, though environmental advocates do point to key wins in the Michigan and New Hampshire Senate contests, where environmental issues played heavily. 

In this year’s election, the NextGen super PAC has collected $17.6 million, much of it again from Steyer, and other environmental organizations say they will make record investments in the 2016 presidential, congressional, and state legislative contests.

The League of Conservation Voters Action Fund has endorsed Clinton, and Friends of the Earth Action has endorsed Sanders, but most environmental groups are keeping their powder dry. Both Clinton and Sanders have pledged to invest heavily in clean energy. The big contrast will come in the general election, regardless of the GOP nominee. Donald Trump once called global warming a Chinese plot, a statement he has since dismissed as a “joke.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz has called climate change “pseudo-scientific theory.” Ohio Governor John Kasich acknowledges that climate change is real, but has suggested that humans are not its primary cause.

Republican candidates in House, Senate and state legislative races may also pay a political price for the GOP’s increasingly conservative environmental platform, says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club’s 2.4 million members and supporters are “more engaged, more invested” politically than ever, says Brune. The Sierra Club has set out to double its volunteer trainings and will deploy an elite team of some 50 activists who cut their teeth on local fights over fracking and the Keystone pipeline as volunteers in congressional contests around the country.

“We will have in the presidential race—and in many Senate races, and in most congressional races, and all the way down the ballot—probably the most dramatic contrast between candidates that we have ever seen,” says Brune.

Voters rank the environment, writ large, as less important than a long list of issues that includes the economy, terrorism, education, and jobs, according to the Pew Research Center. But public alarm tends to surge around specific environmental crises, such as super-storm Sandy, California droughts and gas leaks, and the Flint water disaster. And public concern about climate change, which has entered the policy discussion at every level of government, is steadily mounting.

“You’ve seen a massive transformation about the politics of climate change over the last three cycles,” says Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth. Indeed, Democrats enjoy a stronger advantage over Republicans on the environment than on any other issue, according to Pew, which reports that 53 percent of voters say Democrats are better able to handle the issue, compared with 27 percent who say that of Republicans.

Changing environmental attitudes show up sharply among young voters on both sides of the aisle, says Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Women and voters with more formal education are also more likely to favor emissions limits, says Cohen, who argues that environmental issues are seizing center stage politically.

“There’s very little question that one of the most dominant trends in public opinion is that people are more aware of environmental science and environmental issues,” says Cohen. “And younger people are more aware of them than older people. So the demographics are pretty straightforward here.”

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