For the first time in American history, climate change is a top voting priority within a major political party.
Climate change first came to presidential attention in the 1960s, first to President John F. Kennedy and then to President Lyndon Johnson. Scientific warnings to political leaders mounted over subsequent years, but it wasn’t until 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen testified before a U.S Senate committee that “the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now” that a majority of Americans learned about this global threat.
Afterward, for nearly a decade, Republicans and Democrats were similarly likely to say the effects of global warming had already begun. But this began to change in 1997 after President Clinton and Vice President Gore agreed internationally to the Kyoto Protocol, which attempted to impose carbon pollution limits on developed countries. After 1997, climate change became increasingly partisan, with Democrats more and more convinced that it was happening, human-caused and a serious problem, while Republicans became more doubtful and even dismissive of climate science. But even Democrats in the 1990s and 2000s tended to perceive the impacts as far away in time and space and thus, a relatively low national priority.
Today, however, the politics of climate change are rapidly changing. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication have been studying public responses to global warming for over a decade. Our most recent nationally representative survey found that majorities of Americans are convinced that global warming is happening (69 percent), mostly human caused (55 percent), are worried about it (62 percent), and support a wide variety of climate change policies.
More important, however, are recent shifts within the political climate of climate change. For years, climate change was a relatively low national priority among voters. Recently, however, global warming has emerged as a higher national and voting priority, especially among Democrats. In our most recent national survey (April 2019), registered voters said that out of 29 issues, ranging from healthcare to international trade, global warming was the 17th most important issue in determining their vote in the 2020 presidential election. Indicating the extent of the current partisan divide, global warming was 29th out of 29 voting issues among conservative Republicans. Among liberal and moderate Republicans, it was 23rd. Among moderate and conservative Democrats, however, it was the eighth highest priority voting issue, up eighth places from a year prior. And among liberal Democrats (the progressive core of the Democratic base), global warming was voting issue No. 3, with environmental protection No. 2.
More broadly, the trend lines of global warming as a national policy priority for the president and Congress have risen dramatically in recent years among Democrats, have also risen among Independents, but have remained relatively flat among Republicans.
Thus, for the first time in American electoral history, climate change has become a top tier voting issue within one major political party. This shift among the electorate helps to explain why so many candidates vying for the Democratic nomination have declared climate change one of their top issue priorities. And this month, for the first time in presidential campaign history, two major cable networks (CNN and MSNBC) will host candidate forums devoted to climate change, even though climate advocates haven’t succeeded in getting the Democratic National Committee to organize an official debate on the issue.
So, why is the political climate of climate change changing? Several factors are likely at work. First, and perhaps most importantly, climate change itself has become more dire. Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are now at levels unseen on Earth in at least 2.6 million years. The five hottest annual global temperatures on record have occurred in the past five years. And a series of record-setting extreme weather events have stunned the nation in recent years, ranging from deadly heatwaves to thousand-year floods, unprecedented hurricanes to devastating wildfires.
Meanwhile, the warnings of climate science have only gotten stronger, including last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special Global Warming 1.5°C report and the U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment, which warned that time is running out to avoid much worse consequences. And importantly, leaders of all types are now talking to their constituents about the risks of climate change, and many are taking action, including national, state and local government officials, as well as business, faith, education, community and military leaders.
But what of Republicans? Republican leaders largely remain quiet as President TrumpDonald TrumpPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy Hannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump MORE continues to call the reality of climate change into question, seeks to roll back environmental protections, and attacks clean, renewable energy. Yet, a few Republican leaders are beginning to engage the issue, recognizing the problem is getting worse, has to be dealt with, and that they are increasingly at risk politically — at the ballot box or being left out of future policies. Republican governors and mayors are already acting in response to real-world climate impacts and opportunities. And within the Republican Party, there is now a growing divide between younger and older generations. For example, Millennial Republicans are much more likely to believe that global warming is real, human-caused and a serious problem than those over 75 years old.
In short, the political climate of climate change is shifting toward action — rapidly among Democrats, moderately among independents, and slowly among Republicans. The 2020 election will be a momentous year as the issue of climate change plays a greater role in our national politics and our national election largely determines the future trajectory of global warming.
Anthony Leiserowitz, Ph.D., is the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and a senior research scientist at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. He is an expert on public climate change beliefs, attitudes, policy preferences, and behavior, and the psychological, cultural, and political factors that influence them. He is also the host of “Climate Connections,” a daily radio program broadcast on more than 500 stations and frequencies nationwide. Follow him on Twitter @ecotone2.