Climate movement should focus on winning 2020 presidential election

Will Democrats succeed in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory? A climate platform that appeals to an energized minority but fails to excite (or worse still, antagonizes) the median voter in swing states can indeed accomplish this task.

The contest for 2020 Democratic presidential nomination has officially started. After Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has announced his presidential run. His initial announcement suggests that climate change will be his core agenda. Afterall, he wrote “the New Apollo Project”, a large-scale, federally funded renewable energy program in 2002, the year in which new 2020 voters were born!

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If former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg decides to throw his hat in the ring, climate change will probably figure importantly in his agenda as well. Alongside presidential politics, congressional politics sees a strong push for the Green New Deal.

The enthusiasm among environmental groups for visible and costly climate action collides with two unpleasant political realities. First, climate action lacks electoral support. Take the case of the carbon tax. Even in the liberal state of Washington, voters have rejected carbon tax twice by a sizable margin. In the 2018 iteration, state ballot initiative I-1631 lost in spite of personal campaign by Inslee and the support of all major environmental and social justice groups. Although Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellNative American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment Hillicon Valley: Trump reportedly weighing executive action on alleged tech bias | WH to convene summit on online extremism | Federal agencies banned from buying Huawei equipment | Lawmakers jump start privacy talks Lawmakers jump-start talks on privacy bill MORE (D-Wash.) got reelected with a 59 percent vote, I-1631 secured only 43 percent.

In a sense, every fourth Cantwell voter did not support the carbon tax. Similarly, Arizona voted down the Renewable Energy Standards Initiative (I-127) and voters in Colorado supported fossil fuel industry on Proposition 112 (Minimum Distance Requirements for New Oil, Gas, and Fracking Projects Initiative).

Opposition to climate action is not limited to the United States. The “yellow vest” protests in France have erupted along the same time as the Conference of Parties meeting in Poland. Both Brazil and Australia have announced their backpedaling of climate efforts. By some accounts, climate action is now a target of populist anger.

The second reality is the Republican opponent, whether it is President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE or President Pence, has a lock on at least 40 percent of the electorate right now. Trump is extremely nimble in shaping the policy agenda and portraying himself as battling the elite establishment. Climate action, if not wisely framed, can get perceived as an elite issue; the “yellow vest” protests in France are a grim reminder of this reality.

So what should the climate agenda of the Democratic platform look like? We offer three guiding principles.

  1. Any talk of climate change must focus on jobs.

The “Mother Earth” narrative will not work. Nor will additional IPCC reports or international meetings that warn about the impending climate catastrophe. The focus of climate action should be on the bread and butter issues and not on high sounding moral rhetoric: “jobs” as the defining climate theme is perhaps the best bet.

  1. Don’t call it a tax.

The word “tax” needs to be expunged from climate movement’s political vocabulary. As the defeat of I-1631 in the state of Washington shows, even liberal voters do not like taxes. Maybe cap-and-trade might offer a better route to create market incentives to reduce carbon emissions. Democrats should not provide an opportunity to President Trump to paint them as “tax and spend” liberals who are pursuing a job killing agenda.

  1. Any climate action must explicitly outline a plan for a just transition.

A clear plan should help communities who will be adversely affected by these policy measures. We term this “embedded environmentalism,” that is, embedding environmental action in a new social compact that explicitly protects those who will bear the costs of new regulations. Much of the climate talk tends to focus on IPCC reports and the “what if” climate scenarios.

But the political reality is that even in an era of full employment, a large number of citizens worry about making ends meet. As a French protestor remarked, Macron’s government “talks about the end of the world while we are talking about the end of the month.”

It is important that the economic concerns of the working class, particularly in the swing states of the Midwest, become the focal point of the climate rhetoric. On this count, the Green New Deal, while recognizing its vagueness, offers a powerful new vocabulary to talk about climate action. The core idea is to renew America and create jobs in areas beyond the metropolitan coastal enclaves of economic prosperity.

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In the 2004 campaign, John Edwards talked about two Americas. The same “two Americas” idea could be revived but in a different way. Future climate action could be framed as the vehicle to share prosperity between prospering and struggling America.And a focus on the economic renewal could be on the bottom quartile counties, many of which are located in the Midwest, the Appalachia, the Rust Belt towns, and the communities ravaged by the opioid epidemics. Climate action will fail if there is a perception that the preferences of the coastal elites are being served at the back of struggling working class.

A radical climate agenda, no matter how high sounding, will not help if it leads to an electoral loss. Hence, the environmental movement needs to exercise self-discipline to make sure that the environmental agenda does not move to the extreme left, especially in the electoral primaries. It is fine to draw up a minimal climate agenda that all presidential aspirants should be asked to respond to. But an ideological “race to the environmental left” has the potential to alienate the working class whose support is crucial for the Democrats to win in 2020.

The climate movement should focus on one objective only: How to win the 2020 presidential election. There is no glory in defeat, only four more years of systematic undermining of environmental and political institutions.

Nives Dolsak is a professor and the associate director of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at University of Washington, Seattle 

Aseem Prakash is the director of the Center for Environmental Politics, and the Walker Family professor for the College of Arts and Sciences at University of Washington, Seattle.

This piece has been updated.