The Climate Change Election

Hillary needs to realize—soon—that her chances of becoming president hinge on climate voters.

Democratic National Convention
Activists including hundreds of environmentalists and Bernie Sanders supporters gather before the start of the Democratic National Convention on July 24, 2016 in Philadelphia.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

On Monday, former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addressed a rally of his supporters and delegates in Philadelphia, just a few hours before he was set to address the opening night of the Democratic National Convention and the now inevitable nomination of his former rival, Hillary Clinton.

It did not go well.

“We have got to defeat Donald Trump, and we have got to elect Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine,” Sanders said. For that, he was met with a chorus of boos.

“Brothers and sisters, this is the real world that we live in,” Sanders pleaded with the crowd. It was a visceral moment, but his supporters, many of whom have campaigned fiercely for the environment themselves, were not swayed by his pleas. Adding to the sense of urgency, the exchange came on a day where the heat index reached as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit on the East Coast—the hottest day in years, and one of the hottest ever measured in Philadelphia.

Sure, those who booed Sanders on Monday probably represent a minority of his overall supporters. But it turns out that this minority—the one that believes climate change is an issue of singular importance worth hanging your vote on—could be large enough to swing the election this year, if they decide to stay home or vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate.

At first blush, the behavior of Sanders’ delegates on Monday seems wrong-headed and unnecessarily divisive at a time that calls for unity. But imagine if you believed the future of the planet was at stake. That life as we know it—maybe for us, but surely for our children—will irrevocably change in the near future. Sanders voters found solace in a candidate who understood this problem so intuitively and transparently that he called it our country’s “greatest threat to national security.”

And now, understandably, they’ve had a hard time adjusting to the presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton, a candidate who both defends her past support for the fossil fuel industry, and continues to pay them lip service.

For climate-focused voters, this is a bad situation to be in. Bernie is out, and the remaining choices all seem fatally flawed. On the one hand, you can vote for Hillary Clinton, the (until very recently) unabashedly pro-fracking candidate. Or, you can vote for Jill Stein, who’s currently polling at around 5 percent nationally. (Stein would need three times that support to even make the debate stage this fall.) Meanwhile, the other party’s candidate is Donald Trump—who, if elected, would be the world’s only climate-denying head of state. It feels like there are no good options.

The stakes are enormously high. And that means, for the first time in history, the climate caucus feels big enough to matter, or at least, it’s big enough to be worth courting.

This small but increasingly vocal minority of the country understands what we’re up against, and knows it will take an economic (if not political) revolution in order to bend the global greenhouse gas emissions trajectory fast enough to avoid locking in dangerous, irreversible, planetary-scale change. When science tells you a certain type of policy is required, and you believe in science, fighting for that policy is an eternal source of motivation.

A recent Yale–George Mason survey tried to quantify this perspective. Its survey found that in this election, 14 percent of voters rank climate change as their No. 1 issue. During the Democratic primary campaign, those voters broke overwhelmingly for Bernie Sanders. That same survey found that 90 percent of voters—including Republicans—would be more likely to vote against a candidate if they were a climate change denier.

Now, I’m all for “vote your conscience.” Heck, I voted for Stein myself, in 2012. But Bernie supporters—especially those in swing states—need to remember who the real villain is: Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton. There’s never been a starker choice on climate change in American history. The fact that Bernie supporters are essentially risking a Trump presidency, and they know it, is a good sign of how much they care about climate change. But it’s a bad sign for the future of the country, and, for that matter, the world.

Bernie supporters shouldn’t forget what his candidacy has already achieved: Hillary Clinton heads to the general election on the strongest environmental platform of any presidential nominee, ever. The influence of Bernie Sanders’ enthusiasm for the issue was a driving force in shaping that platform, and leading climate activists have hailed it as a “monumental victory.” They’re right.

The truth is, climate change has played a central role in this election, right from the start. Bernie won over the climate-hawk wing of the Democratic Party, I think mostly because of the clear sense of urgency he’s assigned to the issue. He’s helped transform climate from a “someday” potential threat to a “now” issue.

Hillary needs to make it known as loudly and as often as possible that she believes climate change is a human rights issue, and there’s nothing more important. She needs to be clear that in addition to the incremental steps she’s already announced, she’ll make significant further leaps to address it—the kind of language Sanders used throughout his campaign. According to the latest numbers from FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, if the election were held today, Trump would likely win. Hillary needs to assuage Bernie backers’ fears, and fast.

What she needs to do now is convince climate voters that her specific brand of incrementalism is the best way forward: After all, making steady, day-after-day progress is better than just hoping for a carbon tax to magically make it through a hostile Congress. Problem is, that’s a hard sell when you’re already convinced the world is burning down around you.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.