Glacial Movement

Ambitious Democrats need to push the envelope on climate change.

Cory Booker over an iceberg.
Cory Booker.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

On Tuesday, Vox released the results of a recent Civis Analytics survey of likely voters on the priorities they’d like to see Democrats take on should they retake Congress and the presidency in 2020. Predictably, the top concerns were largely a reflection of the conversations at the center of current discourse: 31 percent of likely voters want the next Democratic administration to focus on health care. Fifteen percent want to prioritize gun control, while 14 percent want to prioritize immigration reform. Among Democrats, specifically, support for prioritizing health care jumped to 45 percent. Guns again came in second at 25 percent.

The past year has seen rising Democrats make a mad dash to the left on all of those issues. The most prominent of the potential 2020 contenders—Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris—have all declared their support for Bernie Sanders’ single-payer bill. Alternative public insurance proposals have been put forward by Brian Schatz, Chris Murphy, and the Center for American Progress. In the wake of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, there have been renewed calls for an assault weapons ban, backed again by prospective Democratic candidates. Gillibrand, Booker, Warren, Harris, and Sanders held fast against funding the government over DACA during a series of winter showdowns and have spoken out loudly and frequently about Trump’s immigration rhetoric and policies.

It has been some time, of course, since anyone in national politics has spoken out as loudly about climate change—an issue forever in the backseat that now, if we’re being honest, may no longer even be in the vehicle. By century’s end, we’re all but certain to blow past the 2-degree warming limit scientists have warned marks the point at which warming will produce potentially catastrophic civilizational impacts. Still, climate change is arguably less central to the political discourse than it was 10 years ago. According to the Civis poll, only 7 percent of likely Democratic voters want the next Democratic administration to prioritize the issue, placing it a distant third behind health care and guns. Only 6 percent of likely voters overall said it should be a priority, placing it fifth behind deficit reduction.

Yet voters have, for some time, routinely told pollsters they care–deeply, even— about climate change. A Quinnipiac poll conducted in September found that 62 percent of voters believe climate change is primarily being caused by human activity and that 63 percent believe more should be done about it. Seventy-two percent of voters were concerned on some level about the issue, with 45 percent saying they were “very concerned.” Even white working-class voters, whose troubles have been the central fixation of political conversation for over two years now, are worried: 63 percent of white voters without college degrees reported concern about climate change, and 58 percent specifically expressed concern that either they or a family member would be affected by it. A 55 percent majority agreed that we haven’t done enough.

That disconnect between how much voters putatively care and their willingness to put climate change at the top of the agenda isn’t all that puzzling. It’s not yet an issue that has obvious and tangible impacts on the lives of most Americans in the way that, say, health care or the present state of the economy do. And yet climate change will ultimately have serious, if not devastating consequences for millions of us, through weather events, sea level rise, disruptions in water and agricultural resources, the spread of illnesses, sheer heat, potential global instability and all the other now-unforeseeable consequences of deep, rapid, and potentially runaway ecological change. Many people—it cannot be stressed enough—will die. Getting voters to process these future consequences on a level that encourages them to support and demand political action in the present will take the kind of high political rhetoric and leadership that paradoxically, isn’t typically forthcoming unless voters have already seriously pressed an issue. They have not on climate change. It’s unlikely they will of their own volition. Democrats will have to take the initiative.

But as Robinson Meyer wrote for the Atlantic in November, there’s no real Democratic consensus on what climate legislation the party should advance. The collapse of the Waxman–Markey cap and trade package in 2009 pushed the Obama administration into pursuing executive action through measures including the Clean Power Plan, which was blocked by the Supreme Court and is in the process of being repealed by the Trump administration. His election has thus far failed to produce among Democrats either a sense of real urgency on the issue, or a real political strategy beyond calling the administration abstractly “anti-science” every now and then, and condemning moves like the unpopular withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. Attacking the Trump White House, as always, is all well and good. But, at some point, an actual climate agenda will have to be presented to the public and advocated for.

At present, there are two major bills on the table: the “100 by 50 Act” and the “Keep It in the Ground Act.” The 100 by 50 Act, as its wildly ambitious name suggests, would move America to a 100 percent renewable energy infrastructure by 2050. It is both broad in scope—it includes proposals ranging from solar-power loans to low-income Americans, and grants for job displacement in mining communities—and incredibly light on critical details. “By design,” Meyer wrote, “the “100 by ’50” Act includes no economy-wide mechanism to phase down carbon emissions, like a carbon tax or cap-and-trade market.” Without that, the bill is more a statement of principles than a real plan for decarbonization. Its signatories so far include co-sponsors Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker. At least one of the two is all but guaranteed to run in 2020. Neither, evidently, sees much profit in saying much now about the bill. Of course, signing on to the plan will certainly make for a good answer during the presidential debates, should moderators actually take an interest in the most pressing crisis of our time next campaign season. The second bill, the Keep It in the Ground Act, is much smaller in scope. It would simply bar new fossil fuel extraction offshore and on federal lands. Sanders is a cosponsor there, as well, along with Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren, who also haven’t made climate policy a focal point of the 2020 platforms they might be crafting.

Quietly endorsing half-measures to fill out the back pages of a platform won’t get voters to prioritize climate more highly. Only the active promotion of bold solutions commensurate with the scale of the problem will. And, obviously, passing ambitious legislation won’t be possible until a number of Republicans and the Democratic Party’s Joe Manchins are either browbeaten into submission or replaced by voters who have been convinced that climate is an issue worth tossing legislators out for. The field is wide open for a figure who can make that case and offer the vision seriously addressing the issue requires.