By Frank Maisano
As we get closer to election day, I often lament how many activists and news organizations draw such incredible conclusions from public polling on the environment. There is no doubt that awareness about climate change and global warming has increased and that folks – especially likely voting democrats consider it an important issue.
But as with all things politics and policy, reader beware. Especially in today’s environment, it is hard to underscore how unreliable environmental polls are because the American public doesn’t understand the complex issues surrounding the politics and policies of our environment.
We were reminded of it again recently when the League of Conservation Voters and CAP Action (another progressive political group) asked Hart Research to poll general election voters across 2020 battleground states on the environment, climate change and clean energy. The LCV polls showed that climate and clean energy policy can be important assets for the Democratic nominee in the general election. A large majority of voters disapprove of Trump’s handling of these issues and a majority of general election voters support moving America to 100% clean energy and believe this will create jobs.
It concludes that it is important for Democratic candidates to communicate their commitment to climate and energy policies that work for working families and promote a growing economy.
Sounds great, but… Yes, with polling there is always a “but.”
Most citizens have no idea what it will take to have 100% clean energy. Also, the majority of ratepayers in some states that enjoy lower electricity rates would be shocked to have similar energy costs to states like California or Connecticut that have among the highest rates in the nation.
We also see other disconnects as well. During the recent summer heatwave in California, large portions of the state were forced into rolling blackouts because its system planning was unable to account for the demand surge around dusk when solar power generation is its weakest. With policy goals of 100% clean energy by 2045, this time the system only survived because of natural gas, nuclear (both of which they hope to eliminate), and begging consumers to conserve to keep its light on. While outraged California residents demanded answers, state regulators, politicians and grid managers passed the buck on blame, reeling to respond.
Certainly, we can push for a cleaner environment and fight to address climate change in a meaningful way, but the disconnect is so broad from the politics and the environment, that it is hard to believe polls like the LCV/Cap Action are really worth the paper its printed on.
One poll that does matter on environmental and climate issues is the regular polling that Gallup does on the importance of it with regard to another issues. Yes, it always registers near the bottom when compared to other issues that really gin up every day voters like COVID response, the economy, health care, jobs, race relations, crime or even poor/good Presidential leadership.
So what do we do when activist environmental groups say Earth only has 10 years and unless we change our entire economy around, we won’t survive, releasing poll after poll that says public demands drastic policy action?
Well, it is an argument they have been making for years. In 2007, former Vice President and climate activist Al Gore told Congress it was a planetary emergency, just as he did in December of 1997 when he signed the Kyoto Protocol against the 95-0 direction of the US Senate.
Even today, every hurricane, flood wildfire and tornado is blamed on a warming climate for political and policy gain, just like it was when we had active hurricane seasons in 2003 and 2005.
While we know much more about science today then we did 20 years ago, the politics of climate change remains remarkably similar and that is no surprise given the harsh partisan divide in this country and the ham-handed way activist legislators like Sen. Ed Markey and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have demanded we take immediate action.
Our political system is the best in world even when it is stressed. But to solve complex issues like energy, environment and climate, we need to work together by avoiding push polling designed for press releases, fundraising and outrage and find real solution that can bridge common ground.
Those solutions are out there. They are based in innovation, technology advancement and better energy management. It will create new jobs and new opportunities, but you cannot undercut or downplay the time, sectoral and regional challenges that this type of change will impose.
Already markets have led the charge. With little regulation and incredible market and technology pushes, nearly all of the utility sector has dramatically lowered emissions and is on a course to go way beyond our emissions goals from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Farms across the country are capturing methane gas and turning it into fuel. We are finding new ways to reduce ozone-depleting chemicals from air conditioners like Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The successes have been slower in the transportation but electric vehicle technologies and future fuels like hydrogen are making significant progress.
You don’t get there without working together. And we have already seen those steps in bipartisan efforts like legislation that eliminates HFCs from Sens. John Kennedy (R-LA) and Tom Carper (D-DE); new programs to help farmers and forestry owners to earn income from carbon credits from Sens. Mike Braun (R-IN), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI); Whitehouse and Senate Environment Chair John Barrasso’s USE IT Act which promotes Carbon Capture technologies; David McKinley (R-WV) and Kurt Schrader’s (D-OR) meaningful long-term legislative approach for utilities that innovates, then regulates through incentives and a Clean Energy Standard; a host of bipartisan bills to promote advanced nuclear and Rep. Bruce Westerman’s Trillion Trees Act which is supported by Schrader, Sanford Bishop (D-GA) and Henry Cuellar (D-TX).
These efforts, coupled with our continuing investments in technology-driven by clean energy market successes, are already providing the pathway to meaningful reductions in greenhouse gases – not bigger government, command and control approaches that prescribe what cars you can drive, what appliances you have in your house and whether you can keep the lights on.