For the first time in years, a broad spectrum of climate advocates is playing offense.
By: Robinson Meyer
As originally published in The Atlantic
March 19, 2019
Suddenly, climate change is a high-profile national issue again.
It’s not just the Green New Deal. Around the country, the loose alliance of politicians, activists, and organizations concerned about climate change is mobilizing. They are deploying a new set of strategies aimed at changing the minds—or at least the behaviors—of a large swath of Americans, including utility managers, school principals, political donors, and rank-and-file voters.
They make a ragtag group: United by little more than common concern, they don’t agree on an ideal federal policy or even how to talk about the problem. They do not always coordinate or communicate with one another. And while their efforts are real, it remains far too early to say whether they will result in the kind of national legislative victories that have eluded the movement in the past.
But for the first time since November 8, 2016, if not far earlier, climate advocates are once again playing offense.
This mobilization starts at the top of the U.S. political system. Earlier this month, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee announced that he would run for president to elevate climate change as a pressing national issue. Inslee’s launch did not mention his White House–ready biography—he’s a former star athlete who married his high-school sweetheart—and focused entirely on his decades-long climate focus.
“I’m the only candidate who will make defeating climate change our nation’s number-one priority,” Inslee said in his launch video. His campaign raised $1 million in its first three days, a surprisingly large figure for a single-issue underdog candidate.
Other national political leaders are trying different strategies. Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor who has made climate a signature issue, announced that he would not run for president because his considerable fortune would be better spent fighting carbon pollution directly. Instead, he will fund a new campaign called Beyond Carbon for the Sierra Club, an extension of the club’s wildly successful Beyond Coal campaign, also bankrolled by Bloomberg. Beyond Coal says it has helped close 285 of the country’s 530 coal plants, a major reason for the overall decline in U.S. carbon emissions.
This widespread public concern about climate change is already being reflected in policy made at the state level. New Mexico will soon become the third state to set a goal for 100 percent carbon-free electricity. Last week, lawmakers passed a mandate that by 2045, 80 percent of the state’s power must come from renewable sources and 20 percent from carbon-free sources. The governor cheered the measure and is expected to sign it.
California, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia have adopted similar goals, all pegged to 2045. And their ranks could soon expand. Twelve more Democratic governors have promised to mandate the same 100 percent target, according to Rob Sargent, a campaign director at Environment America, a consortium of state-level environmental groups. “Six governors got elected in November running on 100 percent renewables,” he told me. “That wouldn’t have happened four or even two years ago.”
Excitement is also coming from the grassroots. On Friday, thousands of U.S. students refused to go to school, participating in a worldwide student strike for climate action. The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led group that brought national attention to the Green New Deal in November, plans to hold 100 town-hall meetings in support of the plan across the country, organized by local chapters.
Much of this activity is concentrated among Democrats. But public opinion has shifted in their favor on the issue. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say that the Republican Party’s position on climate change is “outside the mainstream,” according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted last month. That represents a nine-point bump since October 2015, when the question was last asked.
That poll was conducted in February, when the Democratic-led Green New Deal dominated media coverage. But a majority of Americans said that month that Democratic positions on climate change were “in the mainstream.”
Within the party, rank-and-file Democrats seem to be taking the issue more seriously. Eighty percent of likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers say that primary candidates should talk “a lot” about climate change—a result that suggests climate change is one of the Democratic Party’s top two issues, according to a CNN/Des Moines Register poll conducted by Selzer and Company this month. Only health care merited such consensus concern among the group.
That points to a potential upheaval in how important voters consider climate policy. In May 2015, when the same polling firm last posed a similar question to likely Democratic caucus-goers, climate change did not rank among the top five most important issues.
And several recent polls have also identified a huge, nearly 10-point surge in worry about climate change among all Americans. “We’ve not seen anything like that in the 10 years we’ve been conducting the study,” Anthony Leiserowitz, a researcher at Yale, told me in January.
Those national surveys found that Americans were motivated by a series of urgent new reports about climate science and an outbreak of extreme weather.
Some Republicans say they’re taking notice. “I think we’re moving from the science of climate to the solutions of addressing climate, and that is a big shift in particular for Republicans,” says Heather Reams, the executive director of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a nonprofit that encourages GOP politicians to support renewable energy.
This shift, if it is occurring, has yet to result in concrete policy proposals. Nor is it shared across the party. Some Senate Republicans have embraced “innovation” as a possible solution to climate change, but the Trump administration last week proposed zeroing out the budget for two major Department of Energy innovation programs. The programs will survive, however, in part because they have the support of Lamar Alexander, a powerful Republican from Tennessee who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.
In the House, Republicans are far more skeptical of climate action. Representative Rob Bishop, a conservative lawmaker from Utah, has said the Green New Deal is nearly “tantamount to genocide.” The House GOP has offered very few climate policies of its own. An exception: Two Republicans—Representative Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Representative Francis Rooney of Florida—last year co-sponsored a bipartisan bill to tax carbon emissions without increasing the federal budget.
It’s still unclear whether the spike in public concern will translate to any lasting GOP shift. The Green New Deal, in all its ambition and haziness, has reframed the climate conversation around solutions, where Democrats have more to say right now; if moderate Democrats fell back to insisting on the acceptance of climate science alone, Republicans might be happy to meet them there.
In any case, the views of the country’s most powerful Republican, President Donald Trump, seem extremely unlikely to change. So it’s left to his would-be 2020 opponents to heighten the contrast. At least eight candidates have made climate change a top issue, according to The New York Times. And announcing his candidacy for president last week, the former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas said that “interconnected crises in our economy, our democracy, and our climate have never been greater.” (He has yet to offer a concrete proposal on the issue.)
Whether this focus on climate change produces new policy ideas remains to be seen. Yet even so, environmental groups and their allies are feeling whiplash at how far the conversation has come since 2016. Says Alex Trembath, the deputy director of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research center based in Oakland: “If you had asked me a year ago if we would’ve been talking this much about climate change now, I would’ve said, ‘Absolutely not.’”