A tipping point in the politics of climate change

Keith Gaby

While solving climate change is the right thing to do, it hasn’t always been considered a smart political move. Like any issue where action needs to be taken now to avoid bad consequences later, opponents have exploited people’s reluctance to make change today in service of a better future.

But when President Obama announced the final rule to stop unlimited carbon emissions from power plants last week, we may have hit a tipping point in the politics of climate change.

Congress wasted decades

Since climate change first emerged in the public debate several decades ago, it’s moved from worrisome to urgent – and from an ignored scientific novelty to a partisan wedge. For a long time, opponents of policies to act on climate simply dismissed the issue, or made fun of it.

But eventually, the weight of scientific evidence pushed them to adopt scare tactics about the cost of solutions, while ignoring the much higher price of failing to act. This strategy often worked.

In 1993, an attempt by the Clinton administration to address climate pollution was seen as politically risky by many in Congress. Then in 2010, the failure of comprehensive climate legislation to overcome a Senate filibuster was viewed in the same light.

In politics, it’s very often perception that counts. Even more than polling, elected officials rely on their own gut sense of public attitudes. So despite the majorities in favor of climate action, pollution limits, and clean energy, vulnerable members of Congress were reluctant to take action.

They worried too many people would yell at them, and that few would stand up in support.

Young voters demand action

But if you follow the issue closely, you can now sense that changing. Today, politicians no longer risk facing anger for daring to act on climate change, but for ignoring it.

More than 80 percent of voters under 35 – people who will dominate elections going forward and, through their power with advertisers and outlets, dominate our media landscape – want climate action. Polls show the public views those who dismiss climate change as out-of-touch.

And, importantly, those poll numbers match the way many elected officials are feeling about the politics of this issue. You can see that in the reactions to the Clean Power Plan by candidates up for re-election in swing states.

Part of this shift is also due to the fact the United States has now started to take serious action on climate. Meanwhile, none of the doomsday scenarios predicted by opponents have come to pass:

  • The Obama administration limited greenhouse gas emissions and raised fuel efficiency in cars, and Detroit is doing better than it has in years.
  • Utilities have begun to comply with an Environmental Protection Agency rule to limit toxic mercury pollution from fossil fuel power plants, and our electric system remains reliable.
  • Big investments in renewable energy in the 2009 Recovery and Reinvestment Act helped spur dramatically lower clean energy costs.

Of course, turn on any news channel and you’ll hear some of the familiar noise and partisanship in reaction to the Clean Power Plan. Some Members of Congress and media personalities will use all the same hot rhetoric they’ve always used.

But underneath it you can feel the tipping point…tip. Standing up to say climate change is a hoax, or a minor problem to be ignored, is now the province of candidates seeking support from a vocal minority of more ideological voters.

Candidates in competitive general election races are loath to be labeled climate deniers – for fear of looking silly or out of the mainstream.

None of this means the fight is over. Climate change, which should be a scientific matter, is still wrapped around the axle of partisan politics – and unwinding it will take time.

But the shift in the political landscape is clear.

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