The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Climate change among top concerns for Iowa Democratic caucus-goers

with Meryl Kornfield

Want more emails like this? Sign up for The Energy 202 newsletter.


The night of the Iowa Democratic caucus ended in chaos and without an announced winner. One thing that is clear: Climate change was a top priority among caucus-goers.

More than one in five Iowa caucus-goers said climate change mattered the most to them when deciding whom to support. 

That made the issue of rising global temperatures the second-most important issue among Iowa voters, after the perennially important issue of health care, according to a preliminary entrance poll conducted by Edison Media Research for The Washington Post and other media organizations. Climate change ranked above both foreign policy and income inequality.

This solidifies a major shift, since climate change for years has been considered an afterthought among voters and candidates alike. 

The Iowa Democratic Party said it will release the result of the caucus itself on Tuesday. The state's first-in-the-nation caucus system broke down Monday night as party officials struggled to synthesize incoming voting totals from the nearly 1,700 precincts. 

Those seeking the Democratic nomination spent much of the past year contrasting themselves with President Trump on climate change, which the president has dismissed as a "hoax" and to which his administration has paid little regard as it rolls back regulations.

In March, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) used his first 2020 Iowa campaign rally to emphasize the “moral responsibility” of ensuring “the planet we leave to our children and grandchildren is healthy and habitable.” 

“We say to Donald Trump and the fossil fuel industry that climate change is not a hoax but is an existential threat to our country and the entire planet," Sanders said.

That emphasis continued until the caucus, with Sanders introducing with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) just last week a bill to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Both Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., each garnered 26 percent of votes from caucus-goers who said climate change was their top issue, according to the entrance poll. 

Though Buttigieg is seen as more moderate than Sanders on environmental issues — he does not support an outright fracking ban, for example — the former small city mayor talked about climate change on the campaign trail by repeatedly hammering home how farmers like those in Iowa can be part of the solution.

"The quest for the carbon-negative farm could be as big a symbol of dealing with climate change as the electric car," Buttigieg said during a debate in November, noting that that message will recruit "everybody to be part of the solution, including conservative communities where a lot of people have been made to feel that admitting climate science would mean acknowledging they're part of the problem." 

Some of those conservative communities, in fact, are already feeling the effects of climate change. 

Iowa farmers and city-dwellers alike endured historic flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers this year. Climate scientists think last spring's “bomb cyclone,” which dumped rain over Iowa and neighboring states, were made wetter and worse by warming temperatures.

Edward Maibach, a communication scientist at George Mason University, suggested residents of a state with an economy as cornfed as Iowa's would be more likely to link bad weather with an overall warming climate.

“In a state like Iowa,” Maibach said, “the impacts of weather have a direct impact on agriculture.”

And one form of renewable electricity generation — wind energy — has also become an increasingly important part of Iowa's economy.

The state has seen a surge of new wind turbines, which rely on federal tax subsidies, since the last presidential election as their cost decline relative to coal and nuclear power. In 2018, more than a third of Iowa's electricity came from the wind, making the state second to only Kansas in the share of its electricity generated from wind energy. 

Tom Kiernan, head of the industry lobbying group American Wind Energy Association, said he has seen more enthusiasm in Iowa for renewables than during the 2016 election. "And I would anticipate more enthusiasm throughout the country because people are seeing that clean energy is affordable and reliable."

In a survey conducted in July by George Mason and Yale University, seven in 10 Iowa voters from across the political spectrum said they favor more government action to address climate change. Even more Iowans — nearly three-fourth of voters — told the pollsters climate change is having an effect on agriculture, the economic engine of the state. Seventy-seven percent of voters in that poll also said they more likely to support candidates who favor more funding for renewable energy.

“The surprising thing is that although Iowa is seen as a conservative state," Maibach said, "we see Iowans are more or less equivalent to Americans in general” with regard to concern about climate change.


— Red wants to go green: The GOP is increasingly prioritizing the environment, pushing for legislation that could offer solutions to climate change, The Post’s Steven Mufson reports. But critics say Republicans’ approach to climate change isn’t that different from what they’ve suggested before. “Senior Republicans are said to be considering a plan full of trees, tax breaks for research, curbs on plastic waste and big federally funded infrastructure projects in the name of adaptation or resilience,” Mufson writes.

  • For instance: Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) proposed a Trillion Trees Act, which would provide funding to plant trees to absorb carbon dioxide but would also give tax credits to companies that use wooden building materials.
  • By the numbers: The change doesn’t come without political gain: Almost 7 in 10 Republican adults under 45 said humans contribute to climate change, The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found in a poll last summer.
  • Their approach: The right, which attacks the Green New Deal, is still figuring out its positioning, but “some critics say the new Republican approach to climate change looks a lot like the old one,” Mufson writes. “Senior Republicans are said to be considering a plan full of trees, tax breaks for research, curbs on plastic waste and big federally funded infrastructure projects in the name of adaptation or resilience.”
  • To watch for today: “It is unclear whether Trump will refer to the changing climate in his State of the Union speech Tuesday, with the possible exception of the Trillion Trees commitment, which echoes Bush’s unrealized 1990 proposal to plant 1 billion trees a year for a decade,” Mufson writes.

— "Why should I study for a future I won’t have?" The grim news of climate change is stressing out the youth, Jason Plautz reports for the Post. A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll of American teenagers released in September found that 57 percent feel scared about climate change and 52 percent feel angry, both higher rates than among adults. Since December 2017, about 100 school boards and student councils have passed resolutions that shine a light on the consequences of climate change on children.

  • Questions unanswered: “As climate change continues unabated, parents, teachers and medical professionals across the country find themselves face-to-face with a quandary: How do you raise a generation to look toward the future with hope when all around them swirls a message of apparent hopelessness? How do you prepare today’s children for a world defined by environmental trauma without inflicting more trauma yourself? And where do you find the line between responsible education and undue alarmism?”
  • To quote: Young people are expressing their fears during protests and in lawsuits. At one protest Plautz wrote about, signs say, “We won’t die from old age. We’ll die from climate change” and “Why Should I Study For a Future I Won’t Have?” A group of young people filled a lawsuit in 2015 seeking to force the U.S. government to adopt policies to fight climate change, but it was tossed out by a federal judge last month.

— How not to gas up Trump: In a call with Trump last spring, Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. asked him to compromise with California lawmakers enacting stringent tailpipe standards. But that request put Ford at odds with the White House and other car manufacturers, the Wall Street Journal reports. Ultimately, Ford brokered its own deal with California, which drew an antitrust inquiry from Trump's Justice Department and irritated the administration. “This is where the rest of the world is taking us anyway,” Ford said. “If you start to add it all up, a giant rollback wouldn’t have helped us at all.”

  • Currently: “It is part of corporate America’s struggle, three years in, to find a way to operate with the Trump White House — where a disagreement could launch a barrage of negative tweets and when dramatic policy shifts come without warning,” the Journal reports. “In the auto industry, none of the major players have managed to forge a way forward.”
  • Upcoming: New fuel-economy rules, expected to come out in the next few weeks, probably will reverse standards set under President Barack Obama. 

— How the coronavirus is impacting energy markets: Falling oil prices have been attributed to a projected decline in Chinese demand, as fear of the coronavirus has canceled flights, left 50 million people under quarantine, and deadened traffic across the country, The Post’s Rachel Siegel and Will Englund report. Experts said this could affect oil markets in other countries. 

  • Quantifying the decline: Although it is too soon to tell how much the virus has affected China’s market, people with inside knowledge told Yahoo that Chinese oil demand fell by about 3 million barrels a day, which is one-fifth of total consumption.
  • White House response: So far, the administration has played down how much the virus might affect the American economy. Trump’s top economic aide, Larry Kudlow, said last week that there will be “no material impact.”

— Lights out for fireflies: Habitat loss, water pollution, pesticides and artificial light are the biggest threats to the world’s fireflies, The Post’s Ben Guarino reports. In the most comprehensive study of firefly experts, researchers found fireflies and glowworms, which use bioluminescence to mate, are getting confused by light pollution. 

  • How to help: Because the community monitoring fireflies is so small, there is no comprehensive data. “If people are willing to spend five or 10 minutes each week out in their backyard figuring out what kind of fireflies they have and then counting their flashes,” Sara M. Lewis, a biologist at Tufts University and the study’s author told Guarino, “we think we could begin to gather the kind of long-term data that we need to figure out what species are in trouble.”


Coming up:

  • Trump will address Congress at his last State of the Union of this term on Feb. 4.
  • The House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight holds a hearing on “Management and Spending Challenges within the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy” on Feb. 5. 
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources holds a legislative hearing on Feb. 5. 
  • The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies holds an oversight hearing on the Energy Department’s role in advancing biomedical sciences on Feb. 5.
  • The New Hampshire Democratic debate will be on Feb. 7.