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Will Climate Change Be a Factor in the 2016 Election?

Local governments are leading the charge on climate resilience, but whether the issue will be front and center in 2016 remains to be seen.

Presidential candidate Marco Rubio at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, in February 2015. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

During the 2012 Republican primary, candidate Jon Huntsman sent out this tweet:

To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.

That sensible tweet ended his campaign and generally squelched all serious talk about climate for the rest of the election cycle.

Given the short shrift climate change got last time around and the increasingly ridiculous antics by emboldened climate skeptics in power, it’s tempting to be cynical about the prospect of much changing for 2016. But a lot can (and has) changed in four years. Despite running on his economic and health-care policy achievements, President Obama has focused much of his second term on climate change issues, both internationally and at home.

In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized its “new source” pollution rule, which regulates carbon pollution from new power plants. In 2014, President Obama reached a historic agreement with China to reduce emissions ahead of this year’s international climate talks in Paris. He vetoed GOP efforts to force through the Keystone XL pipeline. For the past two years, the administration has worked through the President’s Climate Action Plan with a whole host of initiatives, from convening local leaders about climate resilience to encouraging renewable energy leases on public land. Most importantly, the EPA is working on its “existing source” rule, a game changer that should dramatically curtail the use of dirty coal-fired power plants and cut emissions.

Those who follow the issue are optimistic that climate change will be treated as a real issue during this election, thanks to Tom Steyer, the mega-billionaire founder of NextGen Climate, a SuperPAC focused on making climate action a political priority and moving the conversation away from, “Is climate change real?” to “What are we going to do about it?” Steyer’s group spent $8 million in the 2013 Virginia governor’s race to (successfully) keep arch-conservative Ken Cuccinelli out of the governor’s mansion. NextGen was less successful in 2014, but has big plans for 2016. In early April, its spokesman said the group would spend “whatever it takes” to make Republican climate deniers pay an electoral price for their anti-climate action stance.

Where the Candidates Stand

Republicans still haven’t moved too far away from their “head in the sand” approach to global warming. Of the three hopefuls that have declared their candidacy, none is as enlightened as Jon Huntsman, although outright denial of climate changes seems less popular. Senator Rand Paul may have voted for an amendment this year acknowledging that man-made climate change is real, but he has also called the EPA’s climate rule illegal and questioned the scientific consensus of global warming in the past. Not an impressive record.

This month on “Face of Nation,” Senator Marco Rubio hemmed and hawed about human causes of climate change and whether or not the alleged economic pain for dealing with it would be worth it. He’s a big fan of the “I’m not a scientist” line many Republicans these days are using, a tepid sound bite that allows them to distance themselves from the flat-earthers while abdicating responsibility for getting informed and making hard policy choices. Senator Ted Cruz, meanwhile, has made direct appeals to the flat-earth constituency, turning the analogy on its head by claiming that he, in fact, is Galileo and will be vindicated in the end.

Democrats remain mostly united in support of climate change’s existence and the need for action (I’m looking at you, Joe Manchin). Hillary Clinton has strongly adopted that mantle, with a pre-announcement speech before the League of Conservation Voters to appeal to environmentalists. Yet, as Grist notes, Clinton’s legacy on climate is a bit more mixed. While she’s made strong statements supporting President Obama’s actions and gets its interconnection with other issues like women’s rights, she’s supported both offshore drilling and fracking in the past. Plus, greens aren’t too happy with her multiyear dodge on Keystone.

A recent tweet from Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, indicates her campaign may take a more hawkish stance on climate, as do her progressive words on climate in a meeting with local officials in early primary state New Hampshire. But time will tell if she’s really committed to tackling climate change.

Signs That the Tide Is Turning

No doubt, climate change is politically fraught, yet things are happening outside the halls of government that point to potential shifting allegiances. Namely, it’s getting harder for businesses to deny climate change. Over the years, there have been several high-profile defections from the US Chamber of Commerce over its anti-climate action stance, notably Apple. Large reinsurance companies like SwissRe and MunichRe have advocated for incorporating climate risk into their business. Outside Washington, local governments are leading the charge on climate resilience to protect their communities from climate change effects and reduce their impact. Disasters like Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast in 2013, are making the costs of inaction on climate very clear.

Every day that we wait to act on climate, the challenge grows. The jury’s still out on whether climate change will rise to the level of importance it deserves in the 2016 election. But with enough pressure from business, lobbyists and voters, there’s hope we can get there.

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