What’s green and near the bottom of voters’ policy priorities? Climate change, that’s what. Democrats have a very, very hard time acknowledging this but it is nevertheless true.
In the latest Gallup “most important problem” poll, climate change comes in at a whopping 2 percent (open-ended response). A new Pew survey asked the public about a lengthy series of policy priorities and whether they should be a “top priority” to address in the coming year. The result: climate change came in way behind strengthening the economy, reducing health care costs, dealing with the coronavirus, improving education, defending against terrorism, improving the political system, reducing crime and improving the job situation and also behind dealing with immigration, reducing the deficit, addressing the criminal justice system and dealing with the problems of poor people (whew). That’s 13 issues in front of climate change!
The Pew report breaks down these ratings by education. Interestingly, among working class (noncollege) respondents climate change repeats its dismal 14th place finish in the policy priorities parade. But among the college-educated, climate change does much better, going up to 6th on the list. Hmm.
Surveys have repeatedly showed that, while the public mostly acknowledges climate change is ongoing and they are at least somewhat concerned about it, the issue is not so salient that they are willing to sacrifice much to combat it. In a 2018 AP-NORC survey testing this, while 57 percent of respondents said they were willing a pay a very modest $1 a month extra on their electricity bill to combat climate change, support precipitously drops to a mere 28 percent if the cost goes up to $10 a month. (Note there is a more recent AP-NORC survey on this issue, with a somewhat different question—eliciting similar responses--but there is no public use file available for more detailed analysis.)
Support is even weaker among working class respondents. Less than half would be willing to kick in the extra dollar and just 23 percent would spring for $10 a month.
These relatively moderate views do not suggest a rich well of support for dramatic action on climate change, especially among the working class. This reality sits uneasily against the default approach of the climate left, which now dominates the Democratic party and preaches a catastrophism that permits no debate.
According to this line of thinking, climate change is a trend that will roast the planet and wipe out human civilization unless drastic action is taken very, very soon. For most on the left of the Democratic party, the apocalyptic pronouncements of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are more plausible than arguments that a warming climate is a problem susceptible to reform and better policy, addressable through adaptation and technological innovation. It is assumed that we are headed for, in David Wallace-Wells’ phrase, “the uninhabitable Earth.” When green activists claim we have five or, at most, ten years to solve the problem by achieving net-zero carbon emissions, most Democratic activists nod in agreement.
This rhetoric persists despite the release of the new IPCC report that assigned a much lower probability to the extreme scenario (RCP8.5) featured in previous reports and deemed the most probable, “business as usual” outcome in those reports. Put another way, the new report was surer that global warming is caused by humans, but much less sure that it would produce an extreme outcome. That would seem to qualify as good news, but the reception of the report still tended toward the apocalyptic. The UN Secretary General characterized the report’s message as a “code red for humanity,” where only immediate, drastic action could prevent “catastrophe.” Countless stories in mainstream media took a similar tack, which was amplified by environmental activists and echoed by most politicians on the left. The impending climate catastrophe and desperate measures to forestall it still remain central to the outlook of Democratic activists rather than a focus on adaptation and continuing technological innovation to allow a transition to clean energy that is both cheap and reliable.
Indeed, the general reaction on the climate left to the public lack of interest in sacrifice to stop climate change is to repeat their apocalyptic rhetoric—except louder. It brings to mind the English-speaking tourist in a foreign country who just repeats, louder, what they were saying in an effort to be understood. It doesn’t work for them and it won’t work for the climate left.
What might work instead? Start with the basics: people want—and need--abundant, cheap, reliable energy. Therefore if what you are advocating appears to call that goal into question, no amount of rhetoric about a roasting planet and no amount of effort to tie every natural disaster to climate change is likely to generate the support needed for a reasonably quick energy transition.
We are seeing this problem emerge in real time, as intermittency problems intrinsic to wind and solar, the preferred technologies of the green movement, have predictably led to energy price spikes and shortages in unfavorable conditions for these technologies. As a rule, increased use of renewables has not produced lower energy prices for consumers so far; quite the opposite. This does not sit well with consumers, particularly working class consumers. And those consumers vote.
It therefore follows that since: (1) the climate change issue is not that salient among the broad public (as opposed to Democratic professional class activists); and (2) the results of a hasty ramping up of renewable energy sources are likely to undermine, not increase, support for climate change action, Democrats should take the long view of the climate change problem. Climate catastrophism just doesn’t work and leads to poor politics and poor results.
That means Democrats should discard their dream of a clean energy future entirely driven by all-natural wind and solar power and supported by a public that finally realizes the Truth about an impending climate apocalypse. If there is to be a clean energy future, even on a more realistic timetable than that envisioned by activists, it will depend on our ability to develop the requisite technologies—not all wind and solar—quickly. Only that will enable the provision of abundant, cheap and reliable energy, without which public support for an energy transition will not be forthcoming.
The sad fact then is that Democrats’ catastrophism has done nothing but encourage them to ignore the practical steps necessary to make an energy transition actually happen. That works neither for the Democrats nor the planet they say they are trying to save.