Hot or cold? Will your outlook on climate change influence your vote?
Environmentalists hoped to make this year's presidential election a referendum on climate change and how it should be addressed.
But while COVID-19 and the federal government's response to the pandemic instead forced its way into being one of the top issues on voters' minds when they cast their ballots in this year's race, that doesn't mean climate change is forgotten.
President Donald Trump and the Republican Party argue they have done what they could during his administration to make America a leader in the nation's global energy markets.
Through the energy industry's innovative use of hydraulic fracturing, they note the nation has boosted its domestic production of oil and natural gas, with the latter especially becoming an affordable source of fuel for power generation that has lowered emissions, resulted in cleaner air and water and helped mitigate climate change conditions.
Trump's opponent this November, former Vice President Joe Biden, proposes doing more to accelerate the nation's response to mitigate climate change risks. Biden pledges that his plans would create 10 million new, good-paying, middle-class, union jobs to support fossil fuels industry workers navigating a changing economic landscape.
While some businesses already are adapting their operations to mitigate climate change risks, voters certainly get to decide which path they support during the coming election.
Here in Oklahoma, people are still warming up to the idea that climate change is real and are more likely to throw cold water on beliefs that human activities are to blame or the issue urgently needs addressed.
Fewer Oklahomans also say the issue will influence who they vote for in November’s elections, compared to nationally.
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A survey done this year by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication and Covering Climate Now asked voters dozens of questions about the phenomenon.
It shows that 64% of Oklahomans, compared to 72% nationally, believe global warming is happening.
It also shows that:
• 50% of Oklahomans believe it is caused mostly by human activities, compared to 57% nationally.
• 53% of Oklahomans believe global warming is affecting the weather, compared to 64% nationally.
• 55% of Oklahomans are worried about global warming, compared to 63% nationally.
• 36% of Oklahomans believe global warming will harm them personally, compared to 40% nationally.
• 51% of Oklahomans will base their presidential vote on candidates’ positions on the issue, compared to 56% nationally.
Scientists used mathematical and geographic models to break the national polling data down into statewide, congressional district and county level statistics.
A couple of the most recent survey’s more interesting data points involve questions asking respondents whether they were worried about climate change and whether or not that would influence their votes in the presidential election.
The difference in Oklahoma between those who are worried (55%) and those who would vote accordingly (51%) doesn’t surprise James Davenport, a political science professor at Rose State College.
As the coronavirus pandemic has become the issue everyone has been talking about, Davenport said discussions about other issues like climate change have fallen off.
“The problem with climate change as a dominant issue is that people don’t see it as being urgent, compared to things that might more directly impact their lives like COVID-19 and the government’s response to that,” Davenport said.
Davenport said issues like Medicare and Social Security face similar hurdles, something that can make it easy for politicians locally to “let sleeping dogs lie.”
“It is easy for politicians to push those down the road, because addressing them now can be very problematic, politically," Davenport said. "It is easier to just let somebody in the future deal with those when they become more urgent. That is kind of the same thing you see happening with climate change. It is not staring people in the face right now, and therefore, they don’t place an importance on it.”
The split between worriers and voters also doesn’t surprise Shannon Roesler, the Robert S. Kerr, Jr. Professor of Natural Resources and Environmental Law at Oklahoma City University. Roesler observed that party politics continue to play an influential role in how people respond to candidates’ positions on issues whose consequences can’t immediately be foreseen.
In this election, she observed, voters are faced with a choice between a candidate who in the past has called global warming science a hoax aimed at creating money-making opportunities for others and one who acknowledges its threat and proposes a plan that would help address the issue.
“We are really in a moment,” Roesler said. “Most scientists think it is no longer a matter of if climate change will have bad effects. Now it is about whether it is going to be bad, really bad, or incredibly bad? To the extent we still have uncertainty, it is over how bad it will be.”
Roesler described the New Green Deal put forward by the Democratic members of Congress in 2019, which instantaneously became a rallying cry against socialism on the political right, as an aspirational document that states what climate activists would like to see happen.
“If Congress is serious about making any of those things happen, it will have to pass legislation that is far more specific, tackling what kinds of regulations and subsidies would be needed — a whole host of questions nobody is talking about, yet.”
For that to happen, though, the nation would need a united Congress and a White House willing to work with it to achieve those goals, Roesler observed.
“Administrative law (presidential executive orders and directives to agencies) is not nimble enough to do things quickly. It really is about politics,” she said.
Visit climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/ to see the survey’s comprehensive results.