Why Prioritizing Climate Action Is A Winning Strategy in 2020 for Democrats 

by Miro Korenha

Shortly after he was elected president in 2008, Barack Obama sternly explained to a gathering of governors that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be a priority for his administration. Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Obama talked about the need to transition to a clean energy economy but climate change, in and of itself, was a back burner issue in the midst of the 2008 financial collapse. People were preoccupied with job loss and a warming planet was perceived to be too nebulous of a threat to top any party’s list of platform issues.

Then 9 months into the Obama administration, Americans began seeing climate change with even less urgency than before. The political right relentlessly messaged that climate change was an overblown threat that only the left cared about, instead of an opportunity to put American ingenuity to good use. Even in 2014, after the devastation brought by Hurricane Sandy, Americans still weren’t prioritizing climate change as a voting issue. And by the time of the 2016 election, views on climate change were so polarized by party affiliation that it became difficult to picture any single election emerging as a referendum on climate inaction.

For those of us who have spent our careers in the climate and environmental policy world, we desperately hold out hope every two years that this will FINALLY be the election that makes our greatest existential threat a top voting priority. And at the start of this year, the long list of recent natural disasters (California’s wildfires, Hurricanes Maria, Harvey, Irma, massive flooding the midwest, polar vortexes, etc.) were finally adding up to look like a wakeup call for climate action to the American electorate. That was until the COVID-19 pandemic struck and threw our economy into a downward spiral leaving little oxygen for any other global threats.

So can 2020 still be a climate election?

I’m an optimist, but I think that 2020 is perhaps one of our greatest opportunities yet to put our nation on a trajectory to achieve the clean energy economy President Obama envisioned over a decade ago. My optimism is derived from more than polling data–because ultimately what we’ve seen before is that Americans acknowledge anthropogenic climate change to pollsters but that acknowledgment doesn’t necessarily turn into a vote for a climate candidate.

What gives me hope is that in 2020, a broad and strategic political infrastructure has emerged to elevate the issue of climate change. While canvassing and organizing are exceptionally important in any campaign, Democrats in 2020 have an ideas machine being powered by the brightest science and policy minds. Just this past week:

  • As Earther reported, former Gov. Jay Inslee presidential campaign staffers launched Evergreen Action, a pair of advocacy and political nonprofits that aim to put climate at the top of the political agenda. The group’s first proposal, released in partnership with Data for Progress, is for a $1.2 to $1.5 trillion federal stimulus package dubbed a Clean Jumpstart for America.
  • The Center for American Progress Action Fund, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Sierra Club announced the launch of Climate Power 2020an independently run campaign dedicated to changing the politics of climate in 2020. One of the group’s stated goals is to dispel misinformation put out by the Trump campaign on issues like the Green New Deal.
  • Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, announced a campaign climate task force co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and former Secretary of State John Kerry.

Every top Democrat in the 2020 primary race had a substantive climate plan which means that Democrats have the ideas to build a more just future. With the help of groups like Climate Power and Evergreen Action, the perception of climate change as a stand-alone issue can begin to be dispelled. The solutions to climate change–namely what’s in the Green New Deal–will be the same government spending measures that will be required to help the country out of the post-coronavirus economic recession. Since Republicans don’t seem willing to make investments in infrastructure, new jobs, and the type of expenditures needed to put people back to work and build a clean energy economy, Democrats must do everything in their power to win the war of ideas.

This November, being merely anti-Trump is not going to be enough to win the presidential election. In all likelihood, our nation will still be reeling from the fallout of massive unemployment and a shrinking economy, and voters will want leaders who have a vision of what a brighter future looks like. Luckily for Democrats, their myriad climate plans are a virtual roadmap to a nation and an economy that values workers, protects the planet, and holds polluters and corporate interests accountable.

That’s the messaging that will win elections and for the first time, I feel confident that the core of the Democratic party sees climate change as our greatest threat and the mitigation and adaptation to its effects as our greatest opportunity for equitable economic growth and prosperity.

What I’ll add is that the aforementioned groups cannot accomplish the task of changing the politics around climate change alone. It’s up to all of us to have these same conversations with our families and social networks. A united message and hope for a future that benefits the many and not the few can make the difference this election and we all have a part in making this change happen.


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