Can We Know How Voters Truly View Climate Change?

Image: Markus Spiske/Pexels

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Contributing Writer,  and Miro Korenha

A recent poll conducted by Quinnipac University of voter priorities in the 2020 election found that climate change ranked next-to-last. These results arrive hot on the heels of another poll the university released earlier this month, which showed that voters in Maine, South Carolina, and Kentucky ranked climate change as one of the least important problems afflicting the US.

However this data counters another notable Pew Research Center poll this summer that showed two-thirds of voters wanted more federal action to combat climate change and viewed a warming planet as a growing risk for their lives. 

What’s Behind This Incongruity? It’s difficult to understand how much of a priority climate change has become for the American electorate as many people accept climate science on the whole, but are fuzzy on the details

Not all pollsters ask questions that get at the heart of what it is that Americans worry (or don’t worry about) when asked about the climate crisis. Only 43% of Americans believe that climate change will harm them personally, thus if they don’t perceive it to be an imminent threat, they’re unlikely to tell a pollster the climate crisis is their top voting priority. 

Perhaps the broader lesson from these conflicting polls is that climate change as an overall issue is too nebulous for the American public. We know that Americans support the concepts behind the Green New Deal and that they favor (and are evening willing to pay for!) more renewable energy. Thus they should be asked about how highly they rank a transition to clean energy future as well as the job growth that comes with the prospect.

A Growing Concern: We know that images from this summer’s hurricanes and colossal wildfires helped bring climate change to the forefront of the political conversation. A recent PBS/NPR/Marist poll shows that these disasters have caused Democrats to view climate change with more urgency than even the COVID-19 pandemic.   Moreover, this week’s poll from Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies suggested that 70% of California voters from both parties believe that climate change is a factor in making the wildfires on the West Coast more severe. These statistics seem to suggest that as the effects of climate change become more pronounced and localized, voters develop a more refined frame of reference for understanding how politics can better mitigate these threats. 

This year has seen numerous crises escalate simultaneously, from racial injustice to coronavirus and mass unemployment, each crisis affects each voter very differently. 

Yet while most voters believe that climate change is an important issue, alone, it may not push most voters towards any particular candidates in the presidential or senate elections. However, as we wrote yesterday, climate change is Donald Trump’s weakest issue and Joe Biden would be wise to better highlight the aspects of his climate plan that put Americans back to work and forge a safer future. 

But, but but: While climate change may not be the top priority for all voters as a whole, it could affect the voting patterns of three demographics: younger voters, young Latinx voters, and center-right women voters. 

According to CIRCLE, climate change is the top concern among young voters, just above racism and healthcare, and for Latinx youth, climate change is among the top three.

A Pew Research poll found that Republican women tend to be more critical about the government’s relative inaction on climate change, and more supportive of policies that aim to reduce the effects of climate change than men in their party. Another Pew poll released in August showed that 69% of suburban voters said climate change would be at least somewhat important in determining their vote. We can already see this from Biden’s speech last week, dedicated to addressing the effects of the West Coast wildfires on suburban communities — which directly appealed to the suburban demographic that proved so integral for Trump’s 2016 victory. 

While the presidential candidates have mostly refrained from discussing climate change outright, these results suggest that candidates can use climate issues to influence the votes of key demographics.


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