An Overview of Just How Much Climate Change is a Factor in 2018
2018 has been a year of notable climate change-instigated disasters. It’s also one of the most caustic and consequential election years in modern memory. And with environmental calamities transfixed on seemingly every other headline in between the melodrama in Washington and on the campaign trail, it would stand to reason that environmental issues would be front and center on the minds of voters.
Voters would have plenty to get concerned about with respect to the health of the planet. Heat waves impacted melted major cities as urban heat islands expanded, along with a spike in heat-related deaths. More than usual wildfires turned millions of acres into charred landscape. Hurricanes have become a back-to-back staple on the news cycle, pummeling key battleground states and ravaging entire communities. Incessant rRains and flooding have sparked renewed concerns that rising sea levels along the East Coast will arrive much sooner than anticipated.
Topping all that: a hundred scientists convened by the United Nations warn that we’ve all got a decade to reverse it before the point of no return.
But does news of impending environmental doom move the electorate, especially during a midterm? It’s unclear. Even as Hurricane Michael barreled through Florida, Georgia and Alabama this past week, the media chattering class seemed more obsessed with Kanye West visiting the White House than what this latest catastrophe – only a few weeks in the wake of Hurricane Florence – signified about the overall health of the planet. With all the key state and federal level races happening, there was no highlight from candidates of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, no effort to connect it with voter decision making. Only President Trump’s inevitable skepticism of the report made news cycles before the week’s end – “Who drew it?” he asked. “Because I can give you reports that are fabulous and I can give you reports that are not so good.”
So, with less than 30 days left before the midterms, will the environment mobilize voters?
Gallup’s annual poll on the topic of climate change impact shows less than half (43 percent) of all Americans concerned that “global warming” will ever affect them. That was back in March 2018 – still, it was also nearly six months after epic Hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma devastated places like Houston, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Around that same time, however, Quinnipiac found 69 percent of voters “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about climate change, with 62 percent concerned they “or a family member will be personally affected by” it. And less than a quarter believe the U.S. is doing anything about it.
The last point is significant. Some polls are attempting to quietly assess how the American public is reacting to very aggressive Trump administration moves to reverse once normal (and progressive) policymaking on the environment. In just the past year, President Trump has announced U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate treaty, gutted the Environmental Protection Agency by placing oil, coal, and other fossil-driven industry lobbyists in leadership positions, and the rollback of important coal, carbon and methane emission regulations originally created to reduce air pollution.
Most voters may see these issues as important, but there is no evidence they view them as immediate threats in need of prompt policy response. In terms of whether voters will head to the polls according to where candidates stand on the environment, it’s fairly clear they won’t. Environmental issues rank 12th out of 17 issues driving voters, according to the Reuters/Ipsos daily tracking poll – roughly 3.6 percent; it was at a peak of 5.5 percent during the week ending September 23rd, a reflection of public reaction to Florence.
YouGov’s polling shows just half of voters identifying the environment as a “very important issue,” with an addition 32 percent signaling that it’s “somewhat important.
And unlike the Reuters poll, the environment ranks better: 4th among 15 issues of “most important” to voters, just below healthcare, social security and the economy. (DON’T NEED CHART)
Ironically, a recent Elon University poll in the wake of Florence found overwhelming numbers of North Carolinians – Democrats and Republicans alike – believing climate change will personally impact them: 83 percent now feel climate change will have some sort of negative impact on coastal areas, among the hardest hit locations in North Carolina during Florence. North Carolina was a major 2016 battleground state won by Trump, a very vocal climate change skeptic who’s called the notion of global warming a “hoax.”
Does any of that necessarily mean voters will be motivated by concerns over the environment? Not necessarily, particularly when looking at the Reuters poll. Environmental concerns in the polls assessed are also primarily focused on climate change, as opposed to other pressing issues such as air and water quality.
In Pennsylvania, a major battleground state hosting both a gubernatorial race and a U.S. Senate race, the issue of the environment barely registers with voters in a September Franklin and Marshall poll: only 2 percent of voters claim that the environment will influence their vote for Governor, and 1 percent say the same in their vote for Senator. Yet, environmental issues such as water quality, air quality and the construction of natural gas pipelines through major metropolitan centers in Pennsylvania loom as significant threats to quality of life in the state.
An April 2018 Change Research poll did explore the environment overall as a major issue, as 48 percent – a slim majority – of voters claimed Trump administration rollbacks of environmental regulations would influence their vote in the 2018 midterms.
But, is it a leading or driving reason pushing voters into the polls? It’s difficult to say – what is clear is that the issue resonates based on party, regional placement, income and race. Your party, where you live, how much you earn and your race could determine how much you perceive the environment impacting you and your community. For example, as the most recent YouGov poll finds, Black voters are the most concerned demographic on the importance of the environment as an issue: 88 percent of Black respondents said the environment was either “very” or “somewhat important” to them compared to 80 percent of Whites and the same for Latino voters. Individuals making under $50,000 annually are the most concerned about the environment – at 85 percent – compared to 80 percent for individuals making up to $100,000 or more annually. And it’s worth noting that these racial and income disparities in views on the environment also mirror the same gaps that are pronounced during environmental disasters.
(Next week: A closer look at the racial demographics of environmental concerns and advocacy)