DANIEL VAUGHAN: An inconvenient truth for Democrats: Americans don’t vote on the climate

September 6, 2019

Seven hours. CNN devoted seven hours to Democratic candidates’ talk on climate change. We’re lucky some candidates have already dropped out, otherwise, CNN might have pushed their primetime marathon to eight hours to make it a full workday.

If we locked someone on death row in a room with seven hours of Democratic candidates droning on about the environment, that poor soul would end up begging for the relative mercies of Medieval execution methods.

You would think, that if CNN spent seven hours — or 29% of the time it takes for the Earth to make a full rotation — on one, single topic, that should mean it was an important one. But it’s not important. It’s so unimportant that I can say with absolute certainty that climate change won’t be a factor in the 2020 election.

Here’s how I know: climate change has never played a role in any U.S. election. Ever.

Oh sure, people will say the climate is important, in much the same way we say that eating healthier, exercising, and flossing are vitally important to us. That doesn’t mean we do anything about it.

In the 2016 election, while many voters said in polls that climate change was important to them, in exit polls, no one listed the climate as a top concern. It was the same story in the 2018 election, when things like health care and the economy dominated voters’ concerns; no one considered climate change all that important.

Part of the problem here is that climate’s importance gets inflated in polling. Some climate advocates, exploring this topic, said that if you focus in interviews solely on climate change, you get strong support for it.

But that changed if you added other ideas: “In isolation, respondents might express strong concern about climate change. But when surveys include other policy priorities — such as jobs, health care, and national security — respondents often relegate climate policy to a much lower position on their agenda.”

Even if you go back over the last 20 years and have voters list off the top two topics that were most important to them, that drove their voting, climate never makes the list.

We’ve seen this play out in other countries as well. Australia’s general election was focused almost exclusively on the climate. Television shows, pundits, newspapers, politicians, and everyone agreed: 2019 would be the year Australians voted with the environment at the top of their lists and showed the rest of the world the way on this issue.

It didn’t happen. The New York Times’ Damien Cave, flabbergasted by the result, blasted voters, writing:

…Overall, Australians shrugged off the warming seas killing the Great Barrier Reef and the extreme drought punishing farmers. On Saturday, in a result that stunned most analysts, they re-elected the conservative coalition that has long resisted plans to sharply cut down on carbon emissions and coal.

What were Australians focused on instead? Jobs.

From Cave’s piece:

The coalition successfully made cost the dominant issue in the climate change debate. One economic model estimated that the 45[%] reduction in carbon emissions proposed by the opposition Labor Party would cost the economy 167,000 jobs and 264 billion Australian dollars, or $181 billion.

The message resonated strongly in Queensland, where the proposed Carmichael coal mine would be among the largest in the world if it is approved.

In other words, environmentalists were upfront, saying they were going to cost people jobs and the government money, and people balked. Another “climate election” turned into a referendum on the government pursuing policies that would kill job sectors with no plan on how to help those people.

If you’re looking at this from the outside, this observation might seem obvious, but it’s never apparent when one narrative gets pushed non-stop.

Australian media, analyzing the results afterward, said that while the climate helped a few individual candidates, overall it had no impact on voter turnout, and it may have cost liberal parties vote shares.

We’ve seen a similar dynamic in the Democratic primaries in the United States. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee made his entire campaign about climate change and the need for green policies. His campaign flopped so badly with voters that he was one of the first to drop from the race. (The Onion even ran a satirical piece alleging that Inslee had turned into a tree upon leaving the race).

All that said, if you’re wondering about the impact of CNN’s seven-hour tour through Dante’s climate change hell, remember that no one in the Democratic primaries will vote for a candidate because of their climate policies. And Democrats won’t vote for their eventual 2020 contender based on climate either.

If Australians can ignore the topic — even when both parties myopically focus on it — you can bet American Democrats and Republicans will do the same, for better or worse.

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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.