As wildfires rage, US voters still divided on climate


Wildfires are burning out of control in the western United States, cities are choking on toxic air, and Hurricane Laura battered the Gulf Coast just weeks ago.
Margi Wyatt reacts after returning to find her mobile home destroyed by wildfire as her husband Marcelino Maceda (background) searches in the ruins in Estacada, Oregon September 12, 2020. - US officials girded today for the possibility of mass fatalities from raging wildfires up and down the West Coast, as evacuees recounted the pain of leaving everything behind in the face of fast-moving flames. Dense smog from US wildfires that have burnt nearly five million acres and killed 27 people smothered the West Coast on September 12. Robyn Beck / AFP

So why isn't the threat of global warming dominating the election contest between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden?

Climate change has in fact risen near the top of Democrat voters' concerns since surveys first began two decades ago, but remains anchored to the bottom of Republicans' priorities, meaning that the candidates don't need to spend much time sparring over the issue.

Talking about it helps Biden connect with his party -- but this year green issues have been partly crowded out by the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, as well as racial justice protests, experts say.

Jon Krosnick, a professor of political science at Stanford University, told AFP that while the absolute number of people concerned by climate change was at its highest ever, it remained only one of several concerns.

"If he talks only about climate, he's hurting himself because he has to talk about other issues," he told AFP.

Trump, a famous climate-denier, has been silent on the issue.

There is little point in him using the issue to try to appeal to California, the state worst-hit by the fires, because it is so solidly Democratic.

If Biden has to weigh how much time he spends on climate change against other issues, and balance how an aggressive green agenda might turn off swing state voters in places like the Midwest, other Democratic lawmakers are more willing to go on the offense.

"It is just a fact that the Trump administration has the worst environmental record in history," New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, who is among the most green lawmakers in Congress, told AFP.

"The Trump administration stands with the special interests at the expense of everyone else," he continued, citing the president's withdrawal from the Paris agreement and axing of numerous environmental and wildlife regulations.  

- Democrats greener than ever -

One group of voters who are particularly charged by climate issues is the left of the Democratic party, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Among Democrats who call themselves liberal, it is now the second most highly ranked issue, while it's the eighth for moderate Democrats, according to Yale's latest survey published in April.

That's why every Democratic candidate in the primaries had to make a climate pitch during the party's primaries and vowed to re-enter the Paris accord.

Indeed, the Biden campaign's goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 would have been considered a radical idea when he himself was vice president, just five years ago.

Paul Bledsoe, a lecturer at the Center for Environmental Policy at American University, said it was notable that when Biden invokes the climate, he does so through the lens of economic opportunity in the form of a Green New Deal.

"When I think about climate change, the word I think of is 'jobs'" Biden said in July.

"So these issues have sort of merged, I think, in the public consciousness," said Bledsoe, who worked on former president Bill Clinton's climate task force.

Republicans unmoved

As for Republicans, it's not that they don't care about the environment -- it's that climate change in particular has become a wedge issue, a result of their increasing hostility to collective action and the influence of fossil fuel donors, say experts.

When Americans first became conscious of environmentalism in the late 1960s, it was a non-partisan cause -- indeed, it was under President Richard Nixon that the Environmental Protection Agency was created.

Basic goals like having clean air and clean water can still resonate today.

That's why, for example, Trump this week announced a decade-long ban on oil drilling off the Gulf Coast, a U-turn that surprised energy executives.

This was an objective shared by Republicans and Democrats in Florida, who feared the possible impact of oil spills on the state's tourism industry.

Francis Rooney, a Republican Congressman from Florida who is one of the few lawmakers from his party to proudly call himself an environmentalist and to back a carbon tax, said of Trump: "His environmental track record is not good at all."

"I have spoken with him about offshore drilling in Florida a lot, and I will say at least he gets that, he's decided that if he wants to win Florida, he needs to clearly oppose offshore drilling," he told AFP.

Rooney, who will stand down at the end of this term, said he was frustrated his party was no longer interested in environmental stewardship and said younger generations of conservatives were being turned off.

"I'm worried that we're going to lose. We're going to lose because we don't have a broad enough voting base," he said.