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Opinion Billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer will spend big bucks this cycle. But he faces a problem.

Tom Steyer is set to spend more pushing climate issues than in any previous cycle. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

As crazy as it might seem, it’s possible that the debate over the long-term fate of the planet might end up exerting a bit of influence over the political agenda in this election cycle. For a confluence of reasons to be discussed later, climate change might play more of a role in the 2016 elections than it has in previous cycles — which isn’t saying much, but at least it would represent an improvement.

Mindful of this possibility, billionaire Tom Steyer told me in an interview that he plans to spend more money pushing the issue in this year’s elections than he did in 2014, when he spent at least $70 million.

But Steyer also acknowledged that he faces a problem: A lot of voters don’t appear to be aware that one party favors action on climate, particularly transitioning to clean energy, and the other mostly doesn’t.

Steyer’s group, NextGen Climate Action, recently commissioned a poll of likely 2016 voters in Ohio — a crucial swing state in the industrial Midwest, where climate policy is often said to be a tough sell — to gauge attitudes towards climate change and clean energy in advance of the 2016 elections. Steyer has been calling on the presidential candidates to pledge to support his goal of generating half of the country’s electricity from clean-energy or non-carbon sources by 2030, and 100 percent of it by 2050.

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The poll tested this proposal in the following way:

Which of the two political parties do you think would support this proposal to power America with 50 percent clean energy by 2030 and 100 percent clean energy by 2050?
Democrats 47
Republicans 10
Both 20
Neither 9
Don’t know 14

More than half of respondents either think Republicans would be inclined to support this general goal or don’t know either way. More than half don’t know — and only 47 percent do know — that Democrats are substantially more committed to this goal than Republicans are. (As for Steyer’s specific pledge, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have signed it; no GOP candidates have).

“They don’t recognize that Republicans are opposed to a transition to clean energy,” Steyer tells me, speaking of voters. “That is an amazing fact.”

This hints at a broader problem that Steyer and others may face: A lot of voters may not know that there is a dramatic asymmetry between the two parties on climate and energy issues. Democratic lawmakers and candidates overwhelmingly acknowledge the science and favor specific action to do something about it. Republican lawmakers and candidates overwhelmingly either deny the science, act noncommittal about it (what I’ve called “Climate Non-Committalism“), or acknowledge the science but are evasive as to what specific actions they could support to address the problem.

Steyer’s new poll also found that in Ohio, very large majorities support transitioning to 50 percent clean energy by 2030. (The poll’s wording is generous to the proposal, but it mirrors other polls that have found national majorities support prioritizing the development of alternative energy sources.) However, Democrats and climate activists have struggled to make the issue into one that actually influences votes.

Will this cycle be different? The stakes are high. As Paul Krugman recently argued, given the ways that technological advances are causing the transition to clean energy to gain momentum, if the next president does not actively reverse efforts to prod action along on energy and climate, we may soon be on our way (perhaps irreversibly) to addressing the problem. A Republican president could undo American participation in the global climate deal reached in Paris and/or roll back Obama’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions (that plan’s fate is tied up in the courts, but it could very well survive them). Either would be a substantial setback.

However, the fact that these specific policies and agreements are now on the ballot in a way they weren’t in previous cycles could also make climate matter more politically than it historically has, because concrete progress is now at stake. That — plus the fact that the issue is taking on added urgency as time passes — explains why Steyer is poised to spend more than ever before. Asked if he’d spend more in 2016 than the $70 million he spent in 2014, Steyer replied: “Yes.”

“The last two and a half months have been devastating, from a scientific standpoint,” Steyer said, citing record global temperatures in recent months and the recent documented spike in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. “The urgency with which we need to act in a race against a changing natural environment has been heightened dramatically. We don’t really understand what would happen if somebody scrapped the Clean Power Plan and the Paris accord.”

Of course, getting these issues to motivate voters will remain a major challenge. Despite Steyer’s massive expenditures in 2014, Republicans won nearly all of the seriously contested Senate contests. Asked if he was more optimistic this time, Steyer insisted that last cycle’s expenditures were nonetheless meaningful, because it kept opinion moving in the direction of action, and predicted this shift would continue.

“There is no way that American opinion has changed the way it has without people putting up a big fight on this,” Steyer said. “We absolutely care about wins and losses. But we strongly believe that the American people are going to be the determinants of what we do on this. So when we see these polls, we see that as critical. We feel like this is a long fight.”

One crucial challenge along the way may be to get voters to appreciate that on these issues, there are stark, deeply consequential differences between the two parties.


UPDATE: I should also add that Steyer sees an opportunity in the fact that a lot of voters don’t appear to fully appreciate the differences between the parties on energy and climate issues. Because transitioning to clean energy and acting on climate appear to be popular in many polls, that could mean that Republicans face a political danger in their current stance, if Democrats and climate activists can successfully inform voters of the actual asymmetry between the parties on these issues.

That will be one of the goals of Steyer’s activities in this cycle.