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As the 2020 election heats up, climate change becomes a bigger priority

Health care still dominates, but the environment was a high priority in Iowa

Former South Bend, IN mayor Pete Buttigieg - Des Moines, IA Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Climate change is only going to become a bigger voter issue as the US inches closer to the presidential election. The existential threat has already climbed close to the top of Democratic voters’ priorities. Even Donald Trump tossed an environmental talking point into his State of the Union turned campaign rally on Tuesday night. The topic has gotten a boost from huge protests, major reports issuing dire warnings, and extreme weather events bringing the issue home for Americans.

As of November, climate change became the 11th most important voting issue for registered voters, according to the most recent survey from Yale and George Mason University. That’s six spots higher since a previous survey in April 2019. When voters were asked to specify the single most important issue they considered when voting for a candidate, global warming ranked even higher — fifth on the list for all registered voters, and first for liberal Democrats.

“The short thing to say there is, wow, that’s never happened before in American political history,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “It’s now possible to say that climate change is one of the top voting priorities for one of our two major political parties.”

For Republicans, climate change still hasn’t broken into the top 10 priorities. But a third of them, according to that Yale and George Mason report, would support declaring global warming a national emergency. While Leiserowitz’s research shows that climate change is taken seriously by Democrats of all ages, the generational divide on climate change is stark among Republicans. “Young Republicans are much more convinced that climate change is real, that this is human caused, and are worried about it. They want action,” Leiserowitz says.

Leiserowitz has a few ideas for why voters are taking climate change more seriously now. One is that they’re starting to connect the dots between global warming and disasters affecting their own lives. That shift was clear during Democratic caucuses on February 3rd in Iowa, where floods left many residents reeling in 2019. More than one in five voters ranked climate change as their top priority in deciding who to cast their ballots for yesterday, according to the preliminary entrance poll conducted for The Washington Post. In the polls, climate change was second only to health care, which remained the overwhelming factor influencing people’s electoral choices in the state.

Flooding Continues To Cause Devastation Across Midwest Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Devastating floods inundated the Midwest in 2019, preventing farmers from planting 14 million acres in crops. A whopping 77 percent of Iowa voters said extreme weather poses a serious problem where they live, according to a poll taken by Yale and George Mason University last July. Seventy percent said they’d support more government action on climate change.

Similar stories are playing out across the country. With historic hurricane and fire seasons hitting the US in recent years, weather-related disasters could be driving more people to care about climate change. “There’s a growing question in millions of Americans’ minds of basically, ‘what the heck is going on with these extreme events?” Leiserowitz tells The Verge. “People are increasingly asking, does this have something to do with climate change?”

Those questions are also cropping up as people consider their future livelihoods. Leiserowitz also points to recent scientific reports that have laid out what’s at stake as the world warms as a reason why voters might think about climate change at the ballot box. Corn yields in the Midwest, a staple crop in the region, could be down by 25 percent by midcentury according to the most recent National Climate Assessment. That study dropped like a brick on Black Friday 2018, calling attention to the future that each part of the US faces. The world’s leading authority on climate science, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released another pivotal report in 2018, which made 2030 the deadline to slash global greenhouse emissions in half in order to avoid the most severe effects of climate change.

The urgency of these reports coupled with rising temperatures and a steady onslaught of extreme weather events have led to high levels of anxiety, mobilizing massive climate protests. Politicians have taken notice of the groundswell, especially among young voters.

“It’s really an incredible shift, and it’s because people around the country — especially young people — are seeing the impacts of climate change happening in our lives every day, and are deeply scared about what the future will look like,” Stephen O’Hanlon, a member of the youth-led environmental organization Sunrise Movement, tells The Verge.

Iowans between the ages of 17 and 29 made up 24 percent of voters this week. That’s double the percentage of Republican that age and eight percent more than Democrats of the same age who participated in the 2016 caucuses. The age group overwhelmingly (48 percent of them) voted for Bernie Sanders this year, who has been endorsed by leading environmental groups including Sunrise Movement. Sanders and Pete Buttigieg tied for the most support from people ranking climate change as their top priority. Buttigieg and Sanders are nearly tied in the Iowa race, with no winner yet to be declared.

The GOP is reportedly putting together its own set of environmental policy proposals. They are expected to focus on initiatives that appeal to the fossil fuel industry, including tree planting and scaling up carbon capture technologies. Representative Bruce Westerman (R-AR) is working on a bill that would set the US on track to plant 3.3 billion trees each year for 30 years, The Hill reports.

Even Trump, who bragged about his efforts to boost US oil and natural gas production during his State of the Union last night, took a moment to promote a plan to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by planting a trillion trees. He committed to the massive global tree-planting initiative (which has garnered criticism from dozens of scientists) at the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos in January. But he still didn’t utter the actual words “climate change” in his State of the Union, an omission that Sanders was quick to criticize.

“The political costs have mounted enough that [Republicans] feel like they have to do something,” Leiserowitz says. “Can they get away with these quite weak responses to the problem, or does the political climate continue to run against them?” he asks.

On the other side of the aisle, Democratic presidential candidates are increasingly vying for “the climate vote,” Leiserowitz notes. “You’ve seen them talking about it at campaign stop after campaign stop,” he says.

Buttigieg called the Iowa caucuses “the end of the beginning.” As election fervor ramps up, spring and summer will bring warmer weather to the United States, a small reminder of rising global average temperatures. Floods will blanket the Midwest, Atlantic hurricane season will storm into the East, and fire season will spark in the West. With more dramatic weather events likely to turn people’s minds toward a changing planet, the remaining presidential hopefuls will continue to contend with this crisis until the race’s bitter end.

Update Feb. 7th, 9:20AM: This story has been updated with Iowa election results.