Aug 13, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Biden's climate communications challenge

Animated illustration of Earth with an ellipsis in a speech bubble.

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

The United Nations IPCC's alarming sixth assessment report, released Monday, was splashed across newspaper front pages, at the top of most mainstream news websites, and received significant TV coverage on cable and network broadcasts.

Yes, but: The report — the panel's most comprehensive look at how humans are altering the planet's climate in sweeping ways — failed to register, let alone resonate, with swing voters, according to an unscientific sampling from two Engagious/Schlesinger focus groups conducted Tuesday evening.

Why it matters: The focus groups showed that even the most headline-grabbing climate news — and climate change is rarely the top story across so many media outlets — failed to break through the noise.

The intrigue: In a potentially troubling sign for the Biden White House, only three out of 13 voters who had supported Trump in 2016 and voted for Biden in 2020 could describe his climate policies.

  • Given that climate is a central focus of Biden's agenda, communicating to these voters will be crucial for the midterm elections and in 2024.
  • Right now, the focus groups suggested there may be an opening for Republicans to define the Democratic climate and energy positions first, or attack it as spending on the wrong priorities.

How it works: The 13 voters who participated in the groups live in the most competitive swing states of the 2020 election, including Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona, among others.

Between the lines: While a focus group is not a statistically significant sample like a poll, the responses show how some voters in crucial states are thinking and talking about current events.

Details: When asked if they had read or seen reports of the IPCC report, only two out of 13 participants in the panels answered that they had.

  • One, Greg L., 57, of Pennsylvania, said the headline he saw on CNN was so alarming it discouraged him from reading the story.
  • "It kind of gave some hope but it sounded like we were far, we're closer to the pivot point than we thought. It's accelerating more rapidly, so I didn't get, I didn't want to read the article," he said.
  • Only one of the participants could say whether Biden supports or opposes the Green New Deal — a platform for progressive social change and climate action that Biden has never supported, though he has adopted some ideas advanced by Green New Deal advocates.

Some Republicans have been attacking Biden's infrastructure plan as being straight out of the Green New Deal.

  • Eight of the 13 participants thought human activity is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather. Yet 11 of them saw climate change as an issue affecting future generations more than themselves, and two didn't think it’s a problem at all.
  • Those who expressed some concern about ongoing extreme weather trends tended to have a past, personal experience with such an event, or knew someone who was affected by a wildfire, heat wave or hurricane.

What they're saying: “While scientists are clanging the alarm bells, begging the public to pay attention, most of these Trump-Biden voters are hearing only faint chimes, or nothing at all,” said Rich Thau, president of Engagious, who moderated the focus groups.

The big picture: Polls conducted of large samples of Americans by the Pew Research Center, Ipsos and the Yale Project on Climate Communication, among others, have shown increasing concern about climate change among U.S. voters, and a spike in the percentage who see global warming as more of a current concern than a far-off problem.

  • An Ipsos poll shared exclusively with Axios in June found that seven out of 10 Americans are aware of the scientific consensus that climate change is largely caused by people, and that the world isn't on track to reach the temperature reduction targets of the Paris climate agreement.
  • Polls also show that voters are increasingly tying extreme weather events, such as severe heat waves, with human-caused global warming.
  • However, there is still a gaping partisan divide in the level of concern about the issue and support for specific solutions.

The other side: The focus groups also contained a warning sign for Republicans. None of the participants could describe anything about what the congressional Republicans are offering as a climate change plan.

  • That's for a good reason — there isn't one, though a number of Republicans in both chambers have joined on to specific legislation to boost particular technologies or emissions reduction programs.
Go deeper