If you include a partisan watchword in a question, people start answering through a different frame. They give the answer that matches their affiliation—their societal “team”—even if they may harbor doubts about it. There is a vast partisan disagreement, for instance, on the question of whether scientists near-unanimously agree that human industrial activity is causing global warming. (They do; nearly every study finds unanimity on this issue among scientists. But only 13 percent of self-identified conservative Republicans think that’s the case, as compared to 55 percent of liberal Democrats.)
When you leave partisan politics, however, larger majorities appear. Eighty-nine percent and 83 percent of Americans, respectively, support building more solar and wind plants.
When you hear these numbers, they can prompt a certain amount of internal wailing. The Earth is dying. The science is clear. It’s so easy and obvious. So why can’t politicians understand that?
The wailing is justified, but also exhausting. The entire story of the issue—from the presentation of the polling data, to the it’s-so-obvious messaging deployed around it, to the frustration vented on social media—seems designed to get people to burn out. And keeping up with all the micro-swings in the polling—concern about climate change is up two percentage points this year!—can seem equally enervating.
Yet there’s little reason to constantly follow the micro-trends in polling, especially the ticks up and down in reported concern. Climate change is a “stuck” issue in American politics. The polling continually points to a larger conclusion: Global warming is a highly partisan issue that most voters do not consider particularly significant to them, personally, even if they are worried about it.
A Yale poll from last month put it starkly: More than 50 percent of Americans believe that climate change will “harm people in the United States,” but fewer than 40 percent of Americans believe it will “harm me, personally.”
A lot of people know about climate change, and a lot of people think it is generally bad. But they do not change their votes because of it. Americans may change their vote because of economic fear, or defense policy, or to protect their property or social privileges. But they do not vote because the ice caps are melting. This is the heart of the climate issue.
There are a few more complicating factors. At this point, if someone is worried about climate change, they’re probably already a consistent Democrat. Journalists have been talking about global warming for 20 years, though not always adeptly. There are just not that many persuadable independents left on the issue.
Climate is an exceptionally hard issue for only one party to “own.” Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions—a process that experts call decarbonization—is much more daunting than just implementing the Clean Power Plan. If we want to stave off dangerous climate change, the United States may need to adjust its energy policy, its tax policy, its foreign policy, its transportation policy, and its industrial policy in the coming years and decades. Historically, changing all those elements together, in the face of a difficult but necessary policy outcome, has been a bipartisan affair.