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Will the presidential candidates have a substantive debate on climate change?

Presidential debates around climate change will likely be a referendum on EPA proposals to lower carbon emissions from power plants. powerplant via www shutterstock com

Republican New Jersey governor and presidential hopeful Chris Christie briefly made news last week when he said that global warming is real and that “human activity contributes to it.”

Yet as a whole, climate change has yet to emerge as a major issue in US presidential elections, which is consistent with the recent history.

In 2012, neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney talked much about it on the campaign trail. Climate change also did not come up during the presidential and vice presidential debates for the first time since 1984. And according to an analysis by Media Matters, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox collectively spent less than one hour talking about climate change as part of their coverage of the 2012 campaign (MSNBC spent about three hours).

Will the 2016 election be different? Will climate change emerge as an important issue for either voters or the candidates?

Of two minds

Public opinion surveys suggest that Americans are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports policy action on climate change. And recent research from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication suggests that this is particularly true of younger voters, Latinos, African-Americans, and unmarried women – groups that comprise a growing proportion of the US electorate.

But for most voters, climate change is a marginal issue, and it has been this way for a long time. When Americans are asked to identify the most important problem facing the country – a question that pollsters often use to gauge public sentiment – climate change barely registers. In Gallup’s March 2015 poll, just 2% of the public stated environment or pollution, which is in keeping with historical numbers.

The 2012 presidential and vice presidential debates did not discuss climate change for the first time since 1984.

Gallup data also show that climate change evokes less concern among Americans than other environmental problems, as I have written about elsewhere. Americans consistently express higher levels of personal concern about air and water pollution, drinking water quality, toxic wastes and endangered species, among other problems.

And, further, when Americans are asked how much they are willing to pay to address climate change, few indicate a willingness to pay more than a few dollars. It is for these reasons that Steve Ansolabehere and I characterize Americans as being “of two minds” when it comes to climate change — we express concern about the problem in the abstract, but the issue is neither high on our list of public priorities, nor is it a problem for which we are willing to pay much to address.

Clear difference in parties

If voters are unlikely to force climate change onto the agenda, might the candidates? Here, there is some reason for optimism.

As part of Hillary Clinton’s official entry into the presidential race, John Podesta tweeted that “tackling climate change & clean energy” would be on top of her campaign’s agenda (alongside “helping working families succeed” and “building small businesses”). Podesta’s message carries some weight, not just because he is Clinton’s campaign chairman, but also because until recently he served as a key advisor to President Obama on climate change.

Clinton herself has not yet spoken in any detail on climate change, but she has previously emphasized the severity of the problem and the need for a strong domestic and global policy response.

To this point, the Republican presidential candidates also have not spoken at length about climate change. Among the likely candidates, positions range from outright denial that climate change is caused by human activity to reluctant acknowledgment that there is reason for concern.

Presidential hopeful in the 2012 election, Jon Huntsman, broke ranks with the GOP contenders and clearly stated his views on climate change.

There is more uniformity on policy, however, as virtually the entire Republican field is united in opposition to essentially all meaningful policies to mitigate climate change. And, when the Republican candidates have talked about the issue, it is mostly to express outrage at what they view as executive overreach by the Obama Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, and to assert their belief that new regulations and initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will result in job losses, higher electricity prices for consumers and a less reliable electric grid.

Clinton’s apparent decision to emphasize climate change in her campaign and the Republicans’ loud and open hostility to addressing the problem increase the likelihood that the issue will be at least part of the upcoming election.

Framing as political horse race

Outside money will certainly play a role too. Climate activist Tom Steyer announced in April that his Super PAC, NextGen Climate, will spend aggressively against Republican candidates that deny the existence of climate change. And we will certainly see these efforts counteracted by those supporting fossil fuel interests.

Events may also force the issue on to the agenda. The EPA is scheduled this summer to release the final version of its Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

In December of 2015, the world’s leaders will meet in Paris for the next round of United Nations sponsored climate negotiations. For the first time in recent memory, these global talks have significant momentum, in large measure due to the bilateral deal reached last fall between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Energy-related policy debates, such as building the Keystone pipeline, are in many ways a proxy for debates over climate change. Reuters

These important policy moments, in addition to continuing debates on a number of energy issues, including Keystone XL pipeline and proposed Department of Interior regulations on hydraulic fracturing, are certain to spill over into debates about the nature of climate change and the need for policies to address it.

With voters generally apathetic to the issue, and likely Democratic and Republican candidates widely disagreeing on the very facts of climate change, let alone on a policy response, it seems unlikely that the current political discourse on climate change will be much different during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The discussion is very likely to become a referendum on the Obama Administration’s policies and pledges, and may degenerate into the all-too-familiar hyper-partisanship that has stymied progress at the national level for decades. And, without a positive, optimistic message about how the United States can move toward a cleaner, less carbon-intensive economy, climate change is likely to remain a marginal issue for most voters.

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