Is Climate Change the Sleeper Issue of the 2012 Election?

Surprising new polling data shows swing voters are going green.

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It was quite the messaging turnaround. In his September 6 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, President Obama -- whose reticence about so much as mentioning global warming has flummoxed environmental activists -- used the subject to launch an unexpected attack on his opponent. "Climate change is not a hoax," the president declared. "More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children's future." In the after-speech gabfest, Politico cited the moment as one of Obama's top applause lines.

Obama's shift comes as pollsters and strategists are increasingly saying that Democrats -- and even perhaps some Republicans -- could be using the climate issue to their political advantage, especially after a summer of drought, wildfires, and record heat. Ever since the collapse of cap and trade, it's been "strong conventional wisdom, even within major environmental organizations, that it can hurt us to talk about climate change," explains climate strategist Betsy Taylor, whose consulting firm Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions just released a new report on the subject. "And I think that was a mistake."

Recent polling data make clear, however, that extreme weather is leaving Americans increasingly worried about climate change. A mid July survey from the University of Texas at Austin, for instance, found that 70 percent of the public thought climate change was happening, an increase from 65 percent in March. What's more, a series of public opinion reports and analyses -- some based on data collected prior to the record heat waves of the summer, which suggests the public is even more alarmed now than when those surveys reached them -- have indicated that global warming is a potential political winner, rather than an electoral albatross.The conventional wisdom that activists like Taylor want to upset emerged following the 2008 economic collapse--when many climate advocates were painted as wannabe energy taxers, and a sharp contrast was drawn between helping the economy and helping the climate. Then came "Climategate," apseudo-scandal which has since been debunked, but which planted the idea that climate scientists had made up results to scare the public, and weakened Americans' concern about global warming Upshot: In the 2010 congressional elections, a number of Democrats who'd voted for cap-and-trade were picked off by Republican challengers. The most prominent victim: Virginia's Rick Boucher, a 14-term Congressional vet who lost to a Tea Party opponent who'dpilloried his pro-cap-and-trade vote. Moderate Republicans known for taking climate change seriously, like former South Carolina Rep. Bob Ingliss, were also sent packing.

The first of these studies emerged in 2011 from Stanford pollster Jon Krosnick and his colleagues. The researchers conducted a survey in which respondents were broken into three groups, and then asked to support a hypothetical Senate candidate who either (1) denied the science of global warming and attacked cap and trade, (2) accepted the science and called for action, or (3) took no position on the issue. The result was clear: 77 percent of respondents supported the "green" candidate, 65 percent the neutral candidate, and only 48 percent the denier candidate. Both Democrats and independents strongly favored a green candidate over a neutral one, while for Republicans it was basically a wash -- neither a pro or anti-climate candidate moved them much. "By taking a green position on climate, candidates of either party can gain votes," Krosnick's team concluded.

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Their findings were reinforced earlier this year by researchers at Yale and George Mason who, in a March 2012 survey, similarly found that taking a stand on climate has the potential to motivate Democratic and independent voters, without causing damage among Republicans. For instance, 82 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Independents agreed that the U.S. should undertake an either medium or large scale effort to cut down global warming.

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The implication, explains Edward Maibach of the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication, is "so different from what seems to be the wisdom of politicos, which is that this is a third rail of politics and you don't touch it."

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The reason, he explains, is that "Independents respond more like Democrats than like Republicans" on the issue -- giving climate advocates a potentially larger base of support. For example: 72 percent of Democrats in the study, as well as 66 percent of Independents, agreed that global warming would harm "future generations" either a moderate amount or a great deal.

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The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration between The Atlantic, Mother Jones, Slate, and others, dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. Learn more at theclimatedesk.org.

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