The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Once again, voters see more urgent issues than the burning planet

A runner in the early morning hours of July 18 in Frankfurt, Germany. (Michael Probst/AP)
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Europe is hot.

At the moment, huge swaths of the continent are hotter than at any point in recorded history, often by wide margins. The heat is dangerous, deadly — and a preview of what future summers are expected to look like. The warming climate, a function of decades of greenhouse gases insulating the planet, means that the summer of 2022 may end up being one of the cooler ones this century.

Both there and here. The heat across the Atlantic Ocean, however, should not obscure the heat here at home. Temperatures in recent days have topped 100 degrees even in the northernmost parts of the United States. It’s summer, yes, but waving away these heat waves as simply functions of the season is like waving away the Hindenburg disaster as a problem with passenger disembarking.

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Yet this week also saw an apparent collapse of a federal effort to address climate change. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) announced his opposition to an economic package that included more spending on the issue. This wasn’t really a surprise, in large part because Manchin is a coal-state legislator who draws income from the coal industry and addressing climate change means, to a large extent, curtailing the burning of coal to produce electricity. But it also wasn’t much of a surprise because, for all of the energy and focus on climate change as an issue, it often gets shunted to the policy back burner, to use a fitting idiom.

Examples of this are not hard to come by, so let’s look at recent polling from YouGov, conducted for the Economist. The pollsters asked respondents how important they viewed a battery of issues, including health care, the environment and civil rights.

At the very bottom of the list in terms of importance? Climate change.

You’ll notice that this is mostly a function of Republicans viewing climate change as unimportant. The issue has become deeply polarized over the past 15 years, with climate change now being as much of the culture-war discussion as the political one. Disagree? Ask Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) about the Green New Deal, or ask a Fox News pundit about the carbon dioxide emissions that accompany flying.

There is a difference between viewing an issue as important and viewing it as a top priority, of course, particularly when considering electoral politics. YouGov asked about both of those things, too, allowing us to develop a sort of issue hierarchy.

So let’s compare how many people view an issue as very important with those who see that issue as the most important of the set. Overall, Americans say that jobs and the economy is the most important issue to them, with health care ranking second. That’s because of partisan splits: Republicans see the economy as the most important issue, while Democrats view health care as their top priority.

Notice where climate change, shown with outlined shapes, falls on both axes. It’s the second-most important issue for Democrats — but only among the top six overall and near the bottom for Republicans.

What’s more, climate change is seen as slightly less important in the context of the election than it is overall. Below, we see the percentage of poll respondents identifying an issue as very important overall (on the horizontal axis) and in the election (vertical). Dots to the left of the diagonal line are seen as more important in the context of the election than overall — as is the case of abortion rights for Democrats or guns for Republicans.

Climate change is seen as more important for most Americans as an issue in general than in the context of the election (although that difference is within the margin of error).

If we compare the percentage of respondents saying that an issue is important (very or somewhat) in the election with the percentage saying the issue is the most important, we see why Democratic leaders focus on climate change: The issue is viewed as important both overall and for the election.

But, even then, it’s in competition with a lot of other things. Nine issues are seen as important for the election by 87 percent to 93 percent of Democrats. Climate change is one of four things considered the most important by the party.

That’s then offset by Republican indifference (if not antagonism). For Manchin, this is no small thing: He represents a vibrantly red state, one that sees climate change legislation as both a political and cultural threat. With no action on Capitol Hill, it is expected that President Biden will soon announce a national climate emergency, allowing him to take more robust executive actions to combat America’s carbon-dioxide emissions. (Without a change in direction, the country will almost certainly not meet its modest emissions targets.)

The idea that a Democratic president might leverage the National Emergencies Act to address climate change was floated by Republicans as a slippery-slope argument against Donald Trump’s declaration of an emergency to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. See Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in early 2019, for example.

Because, in the United States, climate change is viewed as a partisan issue. Despite the enormous evidence that the world is warming and that human activity is to blame, and despite manifestations of that warming, climate change remains important largely in the abstract — and only to members of one political party.

Voters in November are more likely to make their selections based on gasoline’s price than the long-term effects of burning it.

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