Sep 19, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The new politics of global warming

Photo illustration of torn photos of Donald Trump and Joe Biden revealing check marks and x's beneath

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Getty Images photos: Ethan Miller and Chip Somodevilla

The 2020 election is both very different and very familiar when it comes to the politics of global warming and the stakes of the outcome.

What's new: Democratic voters are more concerned than in prior presidential cycles, polling shows.

  • “It became one of the top priorities for the base of one of our two parties,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, a Yale analyst of public views on climate. “For the first time, there was a real climate vote in the primaries.”
  • In addition, the devastating West Coast wildfires are putting fresh focus on global warming's contribution to extreme weather as the race enters the homestretch.

Why it matters: The policy gap has never been wider.

  • Joe Biden's platform is more aggressive than Hillary Clinton's four years ago, and goes far beyond anything floated or implemented under former President Obama.
  • President Trump rejects consensus climate science and is unwinding Obama-era policies.

Yes, but: Here's the familiar part. Polling shows an extremely durable partisan divide.

  • For instance, Pew Research Center polling this year showed that 78% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said climate should be a top government priority, up from 46% in 2015.
  • "In contrast, only 21% of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents said this year that climate change should be a top priority — a virtually identical share as in 2015 (19%)," they note.

The intrigue: Contrary to conventional wisdom that candidates run toward the center in the general election, Biden's platform has moved closer to what left activists want since he won the nomination.

  • This indicates that one of Biden's key priorities is motivating his base voters, not just appealing to a vanishing pool of undecideds, Leiserowitz said.
  • “He knows how important it is to mobilize and motivate young voters, Latino voters, suburban women voters — all of whom have identified climate change as one of their top priorities," he said.
  • Still, Biden's plan doesn't attack fossil fuels as much as some activists have called for. He recently emphasized in Pennsylvania, a big gas producing state, that he's not proposing a fracking ban.

What we're watching: Whether the fires and other extreme weather prompt lots of questions about climate in the upcoming debates. If so, it would be a break from past cycles.

The bottom line: Climate change is never close to the biggest political focus in presidential campaigns, and that's still true. But its profile is rising as the stakes get higher.

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