US Presidential elections have started earlier and earlier in recent decades, and 2020 will be no different, with several Democratic candidates having officially announced plans to run, and many more having signaled they’re considering.
As with the Republicans in 2016, the Democrats are looking at a wide-open primary field, with the longest list of likely candidates in recent history. Trump’s campaign and presidency have fired up both politicians and voters, with record-high turnout fueling a deep victory for Democrats in November’s midterms.
The new wave of Democrats should make climate change a central issue in their campaigns – not only because the health of the planet depends on it, but because it’s a smart political move, with most Americans now calling for climate action.
Trump has almost universally drawn the ire of Democrats, and the majority of Americans for that matter, on a wide range of contentious social and economic issues. But as arguably the most pressing issue of our time, climate change recedes all too easily into the background, once headlines like Trump’s high-profile withdrawal from the Paris agreement fade from the news cycle. In the 2016 election, climate change was conspicuously absent from debates between Trump and Hilary Clinton.
The very nature of climate change means that the warning signs will remain subtle until it is too late. It may seem difficult to get voters excited about what sound like small temperature increases, of a degree or two at a time. This is why scientists so often call on bleak predictions about the future to make their point.
But the fact is, though it has been an uphill battle, more Americans than ever before view climate change as a serious threat. In line with a long-term trend, a report from Yale and George Mason Universities published Tuesday found that 3 in 10 Americans are “very worried” about climate change, and 73 percent agree climate change is happening – both figures represent the highest levels since the survey began in 2008.
“Americans who think they personally will be harmed by climate change is up 7 points since March; that their family will be harmed is up 9 points; that people in their community will be harmed by climate change is up 8 points; and so on,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, and one of the authors of the report.
Nearly 62 percent said they were angry about climate change. According to another poll in December, 85 percent of Democrats say there is enough evidence to justify action to get climate change under control. It’s hard to imagine a candidate winning the Democratic primary without, at the very least, promising to undo the damage Trump has done to climate change action.
Some Democrats believe climate change should be a central issue, with the potential to win elections. In the midterms, Democrat Mike Levin flipped the House seat of retiring nine-term Republican Darrell Issa. Issa had said he accepted the reality of climate change, but opposed actions to address it that he saw as too expensive, such as Obama’s “Green Jobs Initiative.”
During his campaign, Levin put Issa’s climate change views front and center, attending protests and asking Issa at a town hall meeting why he would support Trump’s efforts “to gut the EPA, to gut basic science.” He ultimately beat the Republican running for Issa’s seat by the largest margin of any of the seven seats Democrats flipped in California.
Levin called his success in California a potential “national model for what is possible in the United States.”
Earlier this month, The Atlantic reported that Washington Governor Jay Inslee will run for the presidency. Inslee has made a name for himself nationally that revolves almost completely around the issue of climate change.
“I do think that it is absolutely imperative that the Democratic Party put forth a candidate who will make climate change a principal, front-burner issue, rather than some peripheral back burner,” Inslee told Rolling Stone. “I believe it’s a potentially winning issue to run on, and we need a candidate who will do that.”
Inslee has compared the fight against climate change to the space race during the Cold War, saying:
“It’s about talking about the level of our ambition, and the level of our commitment to our kids, and the level of our sense of optimism. We have to have a vision of the future rather than just a concern about the future. We’ve got to have a positive statement of a way forward rather than just a warning sign.”
He’s not alone among likely candidates. Joe Biden called global warming “the greatest threat to our security.”
“The future of the planet is at stake,” according to Bernie Sanders, who also ranks highly in early election polls.
Given Trump’s stark climate change skepticism, climate change will likely be more discussed in 2020 than in any previous presidential election. With Americans ready for action, Democrats should embrace this chance to put Trump on the defensive.