Only 6 percent of registered voters named climate change as the most important issue that will decide their vote for president, according to a July Quinnipiac University poll. But the presidential election of 2016 will determine the United States’ role in confronting this global challenge, and managing the impacts of climate change for years to come.
In preparation for the Paris climate talks in December, 150 countries have submitted commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions after 2020. This year’s climate conference is critical, as new research has found that even a 1.5˚C to 2˚C increase in average global temperature could trigger the collapse of the Antarctic ice shelves, resulting in possible sea level rise of 10 meters (approximately 33 feet) for hundreds to thousands of years.
A new University of Texas poll found that 76 percent of Americans (an increase of 8 percent from one year ago) now believe climate change is occurring, including 59 percent of Republicans. Will the growing numbers of believers affect the election?
“If candidates are paying close attention to where the American public is on issues like climate change, it certainly may,” said Sheril Kirshenbaum, director of the University of Texas Energy Poll. “Our data suggests that energy topics will be important to voters headed into November 2016.”
As well, “…issues like climate change, habitat destruction and pollution are of interest to the public, and big majorities favor protecting the environment—usually around three-quarters of the total population,” said Steve Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “Now, whether it gets reflected in a political campaign is another question.”
Primary voters, both Republican and Democratic, tend to be more at the extremes of their party than at the center. In the Republican primary campaign there has been little, if any, discussion of environment, and what there is has usually been in support of exploiting fossil fuels and fracking. On the Democratic side, there is a great deal of discussion about climate change and the importance of sustainability.
“The parties seem very split on climate change right now,” said Robert Erikson, a political science professor at Columbia University. “It would take a surge in public support for recognizing and dealing with the problem to motivate the GOP candidates to shift.”
But the Republican base is moving towards acknowledging climate change and its effects. “I think what’s changing their view is that the science over the last 20 years has become very, very clear,” said Cohen. “Also you see events like Hurricane Sandy, the flooding in South Carolina, the forest fires in the West and the drought in California. These are all objective conditions that clearly have been exacerbated by climate change.”
Where do the presidential candidates stand today on these issues?