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Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: J. Countess/Getty Images

Climate change is playing a larger — and more polarizing — role than ever before in a presidential election.

Why it matters: In the past, the topic barely registered with voters and candidates were less polarized. Today, all Democratic candidates are treating it as a crisis, with detailed plans and funding sources to address it, while President Trump ignores the problem and bashes those plans.

Driving the news: In the Nov. 20 Democratic presidential debate, Joe Biden called climate change "the" existential threat to humanity, while Pete Buttigieg championed the notion of a "carbon-negative" farm. Billionaire Tom Steyer said if elected he would call a state of emergency over climate change on his first day in office.

  • Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who officially announced his candidacy on Sunday, has spent $500 million in recent years on global climate-related efforts, and in June he committed another $500 million for a Beyond Carbon initiative.

The big picture: The impacts of climate change, like more intense wildfires and more severe flooding, are increasing in frequency. Meanwhile, ways to solve the problem, like renewable energy, are becoming more affordable, even while the science increasingly says the problem is growing more dire.

  • These developments taken together are making climate change a tangible issue for broader swaths of the population than in the past — so it’s permeating our politics in new and forceful ways.

Between the lines: Multiple surveys of public opinion show Americans' growing concern about climate change being driven almost entirely by Democrats.

  • Democrats are looking to clamp down significantly on fossil fuels and enact ever-more aggressive and expensive plans, embodied by rhetoric surrounding the Green New Deal.

Where it stands: Trump mocks and rejects mainstream climate-change science and is repealing virtually everything predecessor Barack Obama's administration did on the matter.

  • Trump will attack the ultimate Democratic nominee's climate change plan as radical, while that person will attack the president for denying science. Don’t expect an inch of common ground.

But, but, but: Climate change is unlikely to be the top issue for most voters in 2020.

  • The complexity and decades-long nature of this problem makes it uniquely ill-suited for politics operating on two- to six-year cycles and makes it unlikely to ever be the top priority for any sizable portion of the population.
  • More imminent concerns, like health care and the economy, will almost always win out with most voters.

The bottom line: That all said, we’re entering a new high-water mark for climate change and its political saliency.

Go deeper:

Sign up for the daily Generate newsletter to get Amy’s "Harder Line" column, which will delve deeper into all of this on Monday.

Go deeper

Amy Harder, author of Generate
Jan 19, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Global investments into clean-energy technology reach record high

Reproduced from BloombergNEF; Chart: Axios Visuals

Investments into clean-energy technologies totaled more than $500 billion for the first time ever, according to a BloombergNEF report released Tuesday.

Why it matters: Technologies making energy and other material cleaner needs to expand rapidly if the world is to adequately address climate change in the coming decades.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Jan 19, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Unpacking Big Oil's divergence from the industry's most powerful lobbying group

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Here's a big question now that Total is bailing on the American Petroleum Institute: Will any other big companies also leave?

Catch up fast: Total, the French multinational, said Friday that differences over climate policy prompted the decision to end its membership.

Janet Yellen plays down debt, tax hike concerns in confirmation hearing

Treasury Secretary nominee Janet Yellen at an event in December. Photo: Alex Wong via Getty Images

Janet Yellen, Biden's pick to lead the Treasury Department, pushed back against two key concerns from Republican senators at her confirmation hearing on Tuesday: the country's debt and the incoming administration's plans to eventually raise taxes.

Driving the news: Yellen — who's expected to win confirmation — said spending big now will prevent the U.S. from having to dig out of a deeper hole later. She also said the Biden administration's priority right now is coronavirus relief, not raising taxes.