I have a certain mistrust of opinion polls—believing in the spirit of A.E. Housman that statisticians use numbers the way a drunkard might use a lamp-post, more for support than illumination. Results can vary widely from survey to survey. How questions are asked and whether respondents say what they really feel or what they think the researcher wants to hear all factor into a poll’s reliability. Current events, e.g., massive forest fires or a terrorist attack, can lead to momentary opinions that will be left quickly behind as media coverage dwindles. Moreover, there can be critical differences between what a person says and what they do—or what you would expect them to do based on their poll answers. Witness the 2016 presidential election—an outcome that few pollsters predicted.
I’ve written frequently over the past several years about the consistent inconsistency of opinion surveys on climate change. On average more—sometimes many more—than half of those surveyed consistently express concern over Earth’s warming and their willingness to pay extra to decarbonize the economy. Post-election analyses over the past several cycles, however, strongly suggest that many do not follow their feelings when casting their ballots, and therein lies the inconsistency.
Last November Senator Scott, (R-FL) won an election despite his being dubbed Red Tide Rick. The moniker referred to the algae blooms that polluted Florida’s beaches in the fall of 2018 and his awful environmental record as the state’s governor. Floridians in general place climate high on their priority lists given their increasingly frequent exposure to various environmental crises, e.g., hurricanes, rising sea levels, algae blooms and other water pollutants.
Carbon taxes have been consistently voted down—even in states like Washington in which communities are known to place a premium on being green. It’s easy to say a habitable environment is worth the extra money—it’s another to vote in favor of higher taxes.
Two recent polls have drawn my attention more than any others I’ve seen in the past five years. The first poll, conducted in November 2018 by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago, found that Americans’ confidence in climate science is rising. By the numbers, 48 percent of Americans now find climate science more convincing, 36 percent say their climate views have stayed the same, while 16 percent claim climate science is less convincing compared to five years ago. Respondents attribute their confidence to the occurrence of extreme weather events, e.g., hurricanes, droughts, and record hot summers.
A second university survey conducted by the climate communications programs at Yale and George Mason (GMU) Universities also documented a rising belief in climate change and for much the same reasons as respondents in the University of Chicago poll. A key finding of the Yale/GMU survey was the 15 percent rise in the number of respondents who said they have personally experienced the impacts of Earth’s warming or knew someone who has.
Taken together these poll results suggest that the divide between Republicans and Democrats can be narrowed—opening the possibility of bi-partisan cooperation on climate matters. It is a possibility that seems to have gone dormant since the turn of the 21st century.
Republicans, for the most part, claim climate-science is a hoax, a porkulus boondog-gle perpetrated on society by “liberal” university researchers to keep from having to get real jobs. The claim is impossible to disprove if deniers consider any evidence of warming, its human causes and harmful effects the product of FAKE SCIENCE. A debate without objective decision criteria is just a he said-she said argument without end.
Previous polls have concluded that most respondents thought the unfortunate consequences of a warming world were still well into the future and likely someone else’s problem. It was as true of deniers as defenders. Without first-hand experience, voters have refused to own the problem.
The new polls suggest voter attitudes may be changing. Both surveys linked the rising confidence in the scientific evidence with personal experience. Believing you have been touched by the ill effects of Earth’s warming understandably leads to thinking differently about mainstream climate science, and what it is saying about the causes and consequences of climate change.
The mainstream climate community includes scientists and military leaders within the Trump administration. The Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA) released in November 2018 and the Department of Defense report on the effects of climate change issued in January both confirm the findings of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concerning the causes and consequences of Earth’s warming.
These reports were not the opinions of outliers and rebels within the federal government. The NCA was the work of 13 federal departments and agencies, guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee with the help of over 300 experts. The DOD report reflected the opinions and concerns of 19 senior Department and Service officials including former Secretary of Defense Mattis, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dunford, civilian and service assistant secretaries.
As any therapist will tell you admitting you have a problem is a giant step towards solving it. Granted the numbers of Republicans who believe climate change is real are not overwhelming. In the University of Chicago poll, only 52 percent of the Republican respondents expressed that belief. Still, it suggests a critical movement of partisans away from the FAKE SCIENCE claims of their fearless leaders in the White House, Congress, and their core communities.
If the trend is true, it would be among the first signs of a time when national environmental and clean energy policies fall back into fashion. Should it turn into a bi-partisan call to action, then any policies enacted would stand a much better chance of staying enacted rather than being buffeted about by political winds every four to eight years.
There will never be a better time
As I wrote in Part 1 of the Slouching Towards Suburbia series, politics in the 21st century is a game of decimal points. Thousands of votes out of millions are tipping the scales. At least 20 Democrats and 24 Republicans won their House races by a margin of five percent or less. Recounts in Florida, Georgia, Utah and elsewhere reflected just how close many of the races were.
Educated affluent suburbanites offer an increasingly attractive voting block on climate matters and are a large enough cohort to be the difference between the on-again/ off-again cycle of environmental protection of the past and the establishment of an effective, stable and aggressive national climate change policy. These voters have already shown signs of their willingness to value specific issues, e.g., healthcare and climate, above party fealty. Political analysts from both parties are seeing the changes just within the two years between the 2016 and 2018 elections as evidence of “malleability.”
Re-distribute .0038 percent of the three million more votes Clinton won in 2016 to Michigan, and she captures 16 more electoral votes. Trump took the state and all its electors by just 11,612 votes.
Had 120,000 Trump voters—0.04 percent of three million—gone for Clinton she would have won Florida’s 29 electoral votes. Together Florida and Michigan would have earned Clinton the White House. A valuable lesson of the last two elections is that small differences can have very outsized consequences.
The 2018 midterms turned out to be a blue wave in the Congressional races and strategic victories at the state level. In Michigan, for example, Democrats captured the offices of Governor and Attorney General—breaking up eight years of Republican control of all three branches of state government. In the US House races, the delegation went from 9 to 4 Republican to 7 and 7.
Michigan was not the only site of Democratic victories that will prove good for the environment. Six of the eight Great Lakes states voted in Democratic governors and attorneys general. All promising signs for Democratic prospects in 2020.
Promising for the Democrats perhaps, but not necessarily good over the long-term for the environment. Real victory in the climate-policy wars won’t happen until there is bi-partisan agreement that the problem is real and demands immediate attention.
One-party control of federal and state government is not only hard to achieve; it is only temporary when it is achieved. Private markets hate uncertainty—flipping from donkeys to elephants and back again every four to eight years is the definition of uncertainty. Political markets are no keener on rolling transitions than the private sector. Moreover, the political wash and rinse cycle encourages obstructive behavior by the outside party.
Presumably finding common ground between Democrats and enough Republicans to matter between now and the 2020 national elections will elevate national climate policies above the political fray. I use the word “presumably” because I can’t say with certainty that bi-partisanship will accomplish the goal of effective and stable climate policies.
Although I can’t prove the positive, I can say with certainty that partisanship at the extremes is a disaster for the environment and the nation's chances of continued economic growth. The most accessible block of Republican and Independent voters are educated, affluent suburban voters—particularly women voters.
To get them, however, will require work and compromise. These are not voters who will be any more comfortable at the extreme of the left than they have been on the right.
Just as the Green New Deal takes its inspiration from the New York Times columnist, Tom Friedman, I too was inspired to write this series by something he recently wrote about the green new deal he had proposed in 2007.
To achieve [the needed] scale… my view was that a Green New Deal had to be embraced by more than liberals. You had to reach conservatives and even climate deniers.
If the recent university polls accurately reflect what is actually happening—rising Republican confidence in climate science—then there has never been a better time for climate hawks to reach across the aisle.
It must, however, be gentle reach; an aggressive lunge—even the appearance of one--risks continuing the donkey-elephant cycle.
What is necessary is a tough question and one that will take time to answer. Even when parties agree on the problem, they propose alternative paths to its solution. Traditional differences between Democrats and Republicans, e.g., government mandates versus market-based incentives, need to be considered and accounted for in proposed solutions.
I am hopeful that new Democratic House majority will use its leadership of both standing and select House committees to present to all Americans well-grounded evidence-based reasons why their rising confidence in climate science is justified—as are their feelings that today’s extreme weather events portend worse things to come. Things that are certain to come if the nation doesn’t act quickly to do what is necessary to effectuate a just transition to a low-carbon economy.
Lead images: wiki commons/Civil Notion
My colleague, Jennifer Delony, and I can now be heard weekly on Zero Net Fifty discussing environmental politics. Check it out, and let us know what you think and topics you might like covered.
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.