Why the Climate Change Issue Could Sway the 2016 Presidential Election

blog-2016 election-7.21.16As Americans become more aware of the impacts of climate change on their health and communities, acceptance of climate change has grown, and so has concern. Yet, even though a growing number of us have been saying we need to do something about it, the issue hasn’t been a top priority when it comes to voting. The economy, terrorism, health care, and education have typically ranked higher when deciding who to vote for.
 
But this may finally be changing, and just in time for the 2016 Presidential election.
 
More Americans Say Climate Issues Will Influence Their Vote
 
A new analysis just released by Yale and George Mason University found a sharp increase in the number of people who are “alarmed” about climate change – 17 percent, up five percentage points from last year. And among that group, over 80 percent ranked “protecting the environment,” “global warming,” and “developing clean energy” as their top three issues to consider when choosing a presidential candidate.
 
6-Americas-Cartoons-Slide-1-e1459619373734The analysis was part of an ongoing project titled Global Warming’s Six Americas, which divides the American public into six distinct audiences: Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, and Dismissive.
 
The new poll found that Concerned respondents also find environmental protection, global warming, and clean energy to be important; however, those issues rank closer to the middle of the 23 issues they were asked about. The other four audiences ranked global warming as their least important issue, meaning we still have a lot of work to do.
 
Nonetheless, the poll shows a promising trend. Ed Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication and a member of our Research Council, believes “the dismissive are on the decline and will remain on the decline” and “the size of the alarmed are on the rise and will remain on the rise.”
 
Americans Want Candidates to Discuss Climate Change More
 
One big reason that climate change isn’t a top-tier priority for most voters may be that it’s low on the agenda for many candidates. This is frustrating to voters who do care about the issue. In a phone survey of Guardian US readers, 20 percent of respondents expressed anger at the candidates’ lack of attention to this very serious problem. The readers pointed out that the Republican debates barely touched on the topic, and the major GOP candidates have been largely dismissive of the dangers or even the existence of climate change. Democratic candidates were also criticized for not giving the issue greater prominence.
 
Granted, the Guardian readers who responded to the survey were overwhelmingly left-leaning in their affiliations. But some less partisan groups have also been calling on political leaders to address climate change. The free-market Partnership for Responsible Growth has been running ads during the Republican National Convention this week, reminding conservatives that Republican presidents like George W. Bush and members of Congress like Senator John McCain have accepted climate science in the past and have championed climate action.
 

 
Media Coverage of Climate Change Is Lacking
 
Some of the Guardian readers’ anger was directed at the mainstream media, and for good reason. We can all agree that this election season has been a kooky one, in which far more attention has been given to hand size than to policy issues. According to a study by Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, only about 10 percent of 2016 primary coverage focused on “substantive concerns” such as policy positions or leadership qualities.
 
Will climate change become a bigger media story in the general election? It remains to be seen – but voters increasingly want their next President to take action.
 
ecoAmerica Survey Captures Snapshot of Likely Voters
 
While conducting research for our recent climate communications guide, Let’s Talk Climate, we also found a ripening of climate awareness and a desire for solutions. Though 93 percent of those we polled said they agreed climate change was real, only 67 percent expressed concern. However, that concern increased when the language was changed to invoke the impacts of climate change on future generations. A majority of respondents also said we need to take action now to reduce emissions, and were optimistic that climate change is solvable. (Check out our complete Polling Insights report here.)
 
How We Can Help Keep the Positive Momentum Going
 
These trends among voters are encouraging, but with so many other issues clamoring for our attention, how can we help keep climate change top of mind come Election Day? Here are some approaches suggested by our research:
 

  • Remind friends, colleagues, and constituents that their other top priorities – the health of their families, their economic well-being, our national security – are all connected to climate change
  • Talk about “damage to the climate” rather than “climate change” – it creates more urgency and is less polarizing
  • Frame climate action in terms of our moral responsibility for future generations
  • Show that solving climate change is not just possible, but within our grasp, with clean, affordable solutions available here and now
  • Stay positive and solutions-focused – concern can easily turn to despair or disengagement if we dwell on the negative

Download our Let’s Talk Climate guide for more ways to engage Americans on climate.

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