Climate change likely a trap for Democrats in 2020
The more the climate debate changes, the more it stays the same.
Polls show that the public is worried about climate change, but that doesn’t mean that it is any more ready to bear any burden or pay any price to combat it.
If President Donald Trump claws his way to victory again in Pennsylvania and the Upper Midwest, his path will likely go through abortion and climate change, two issues on which the Democrats are most confident in their righteousness and willing to embrace radical policies that appeal to their own voters much more than anyone else.
Joe Biden, the relative moderate, is subject to these forces. He dumped his longtime support for the Hyde Amendment prohibiting federal funding of abortion last week and released a climate plan that, even if more modest than the “Green New Deal” (a low bar), is clearly derived from it.
“Climate” is a watchword among the Democratic presidential candidates — and an enormous downside risk. Once you are convinced that you are addressing a planet-threatening crisis that will soon become irreversible, prudence and incrementalism begin to look dispensable.
There’s no doubt that climate is a top-tier issue for Democrats. In a CNN poll, 96% of Democrats say it’s very important that candidates support “taking aggressive action to slow the effects of climate change.” It’s doubtful that mom, baseball and apple pie would poll any higher.
Among the broader public, according to a survey by climate change programs at Yale and George Mason universities, 70% believe that climate change is happening, and 57% believe that humans are causing it.
It’s easy to overinterpret these numbers, though. An Associated Press/University of Chicago poll asked people how much they were actually willing to pay to fight climate change, and 57% said at least $1 a month, or not even the cost of a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
The political experience of other advanced democracies is a flashing red light. In Australia last month, the liberal opposition lost what was supposed to be “the climate change” election, against all expectations. Pre-election polling showed that about 60% of Australians thought the government should address climate change “even if this involves significant costs.” It turned out that it was one thing to tell that to pollsters and another to vote to make it happen.
In France, gas and diesel hikes as part of a government plan to reduce carbon emissions by 75% sparked the yellow vest movement in car-dependent suburbs and towns, and had to be ignominiously reversed.
The politics of climate change will be problematic for the duration, for several reasons. The voters most opposed to the costs of climate action tend to be “deplorables” most easily dismissed by center-left parties at their own peril: voters in rural Queensland in Australia, economically distressed residents of unfashionable rural and semiurban areas of France, working-class voters in the Rust Belt in the U.S.
The real felt urgency of climate change will not, anytime soon, match the rhetoric of the advocates. There’s currently an effort to make every natural disaster in the U.S. a symptom of an alleged climate emergency. This approach may pay some dividends since there’s always extreme weather, but it hardly reflects a careful accounting of the data.
Bearing real costs for the sake of the climate will always be a sucker’s game for any one country so long as there isn’t a global regime mandating emission reductions (and, thankfully, there isn’t anything remotely like the political will for such a regime).
Finally, whatever the costs, no one is going to feel any climate benefits anytime soon, or likely ever. The supposed upside of plausible policies adopted by the U.S. would be minuscule changes in the global temperature decades from now.
All this should counsel caution rather than apocalyptic rhetoric and policies, although Trump has every reason to hope it doesn’t.
Editor’s note: Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.