ZEUS: Election stretch run will leave climate change in the dust

Amid disasters and calls for environmental justice, climate is still not the priority it needs to be among parties

SAN FRANCISCO (Callaway Climate Insights) — If ever there was a presidential election year that demanded a priority debate about combating climate change, 2020 is it. Fueled by a run of hurricanes, wildfires, flooding, and protests for environmental justice, the changes shaping the nation are right in front of our eyes.

In electoral politics, though, the climate emergency will have to take its place in line. And it won’t be up front.

Despite impassioned speeches by California Gov. Gavin Newsom and New Mexico Gov. Lujan Grisham last week at the Democratic National Convention, and Joe Biden’s best effort to wrap his candidacy in the environmental flag, the evidence shows that it is just not a make-or-break issue for most voters.

A study released this week, led by Stanford University, showed that climate change has continued to increase in importance for voters from 2016 and 2012, and that a solid majority believes the government must do more to combat global warming.

That majority comes in part because of Covid-19, which has thrust environmental concerns into the realms of immediate survival from pandemics and imperative economic rebuilding. But because most Americans — even large parts of the Republican Party — agree that more must be done, climate change is not the polarizing issue that abortion, Black Lives Matter, gun control, or even deep state conspiracies like QAnon can be as President Trump and Biden square up.

Indeed, the study takes aim at the old canard that climate change is a luxury issue. The survey shows it has moved beyond that. More people are contributing and volunteering for causes, especially the young. More climate philanthropists are supporting campaigns. More investors are targeting environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing plans, sparking a huge surge in assets under management in ESG funds in 2020 as the stock market roars.

But even though, as we’ve seen in the past few weeks, climate change is life and death for many, it’s not yet political life and death. A study earlier this month by the Pew Research Center doesn’t even have climate change in the top 10 of important issues for voters. It trails economic inequality, violent crime, even foreign policy. Still, it is making inroads by attaching itself to other issues.

The social unrest that has scarred the country this summer after shootings in Minneapolis and now Wisconsin have tied climate change to the plight of minorities such as Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. No political speech or economic strategy tied to green rebuilding leaves aside environmental justice. By twinning these two important issues, they become more urgent. And more high profile.

A fabulous New York Times piece this week focused on how red-lined districts in many U.S. cities are several degrees hotter during the summer than the rest of the city, in short because they have fewer parks and trees.

Still, as the country veers down the homestretch to Nov. 3, arguing about mail-in ballots, Covid re-openings, protests vs. riots, immigration, Russia, China, rule of law and future of the Democracy, it’s hard to see climate change in that mix, other than as a weapon.

During the Republican National Convention this week, the subject is predictably absent, except for when Trump uses it to attack Democrats by citing California’s catastrophes, or defending fossil fuel industry jobs. In his own, unprecedented way, he can turn it into a more polarizing issue than it really is.

When we go fill in our ballots, at home or at the polls, most of us will have long made up our minds on who to vote for. The issue, as always, will be who gets out the most vote. And when we get the results that night, a week later (a month later?) and begin arguing about it afresh, all of these issues will still be with us, including climate change, pushing right along.

We are a reactive country in a reactive world, and we will always be focused on the crisis at hand. The year 2020 will go down in history as the year the world collectively began to react to mitigate and adapt to climate change. But even in that history, it is destined to be overshadowed. Cast behind politics and plague by our collective capacity to search for more urgent and recognizable enemies.