Climate Change in the Political Spotlight

Climate change has been a low-visibility political issue. That may be changing.

Generally, climate change doesn’t get much attention as a political issue. That may be changing now. And if it is, that could have important implications.

One sign of the times is Jay Inslee’s run for the Presidency. He may not be at the top of the lists of prospects, but he’s an established, well-respected political figure. And climate change is the centerpiece of his campaign. As the Atlantic observes, “[o]ther Democrats are, suddenly, talking about climate change.” The Atlantic gives numerous examples: “Bernie Sanders prioritizes it in all his speeches, and a few weeks ago he held a ‘national town hall’ on what he called ‘the great crisis facing our planet, facing humanity.’  Booker, Harris, and Warren have all voted in the Senate on progressive environmental bills, and Tom Steyer has written huge checks to many green causes.” Some of these political figures, like Sanders, are in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Others, like Inslee, are mainstream liberals.Contrast this with 2016, when Hillary Clinton only mentioned climate change in one sentence of her nomination acceptance speech.

Climate change is also getting fresh attention in Congress with the creation of a select House committee on the issue. Support for climate action has also taken more dramatic form.. In November, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined 150 young climate activists in a Tuesday sit-in at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol Hill office. Ocasio-Cortez also leads the charge among young new group of Progressives in the House for a Green New Deal, which centers on renewable energy and the climate crisis. The Green New Deal resolution is a product of that effort.

Why is climate change more in the political spotlight these days? One reason may be a shift in public opinion. As I discussed in a post in December, there’s been a significant shift in public attitudes in just the past few years. There have been 10% increases in the past four years in the number of Americans who believe climate change is happening and in the number who think it’s a serious problem. There’s also a generation gap, with younger Americans taking an especially strong stand on the issue, Even within the Democratic Party, younger politicians like AOC seem to be in the lead in pushing the climate issue. is reflecting the views of her generation on this issue. In January, the Times reported on a joint Yale/George Mason study:

“[M]ajorities in both parties think the government should fund research into solar and wind energy, offer tax rebates to those buying energy-efficient vehicles and solar panels, and encourage schools to teach children about the causes and consequences of global warming, and potential solutions. A majority of Democrats and Republicans believe the United States should participate in the Paris climate accord and reduce greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do.”

At the end of January, another Yale/George Mason survey found that 73% of Americans think global warming is happening, up from 70% last March, and 72% said climate change was important to them, a 9% increase in less than a year.  Another poll found that the dramatic increase in extreme weather events has been an important factor in this shift. And of course, there is mounting evidence from the scientists about the severity and urgency of the problem, which may be filtering through to politicians and the public. All of this makes climate change a more politically salient issue.

The increased political spotlight on climate change is a very promising sign in terms of the likelihood of serious policy action. In the past, it hasn’t been easy to mobilize the public on this issue, but that may be changing.

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Reader Comments

4 Replies to “Climate Change in the Political Spotlight”


    “In the (at least) 30 years since scientists began warning about climate change, the environmental movement, global civil society, and some (though not enough) political leaders have been focused on addressing the root of the problem: greenhouse gas emissions. But those efforts have been inadequate, and temperatures continue to rise. The terrible fate we sought to avoid is upon us: Even if humans stopped all emissions today, Earth would keep warming for generations. Which means that even as we stay focused on transitioning away from fossil fuels, halting deforestation, and reforming our agriculture systems, we must also begin preparing for life on a planet transformed.—

    Humans occupy a position of power unprecedented in the life of the planet, yet we know that the status quo is untenable. While intelligence may be indispensable to navigating this era, it’s also insufficient. Yes, we’ll need all the smarts we can muster.”

    The CALIFORNIA magazine 2006 question “Can We Adapt in Time?” now has a “No” answer, and the new question is: Do we have the smarts to survive?

    Dan, can UC help us before it is too late forever?

    1. Dan, I believe that “Do we have the smarts to survive?” and “can UC help us before it is too late forever?” are the most important questions that I have ever asked you. But you have refused to comment on so many of my comments that I must accept that you believe in “Richard Hofstadter’s [1963 book] Anti-Intellectualism in American Life where he talked about how academics characterized themselves as pure — he noted that one of the reasons, perhaps, why there were so few public intellectuals of note in America is not just because America is anti-intellectual—which of course it is—but also because so many intellectuals don’t want to take on the sort of complications and impurities that come with being public” (copied from Nicholas Dirks’ interview in the Summer 2013 issue of CALIFORNIA magazine).

      Your attitude is not helping us survive at a time when we must make every effort to communicate with the public more than ever before.

      Never, never, never forget what Churchill said to help win WWII: “Never, never, never give up.”

      We can’t afford to marginalize the public if we want to survive, especially when the consequences are worse than losing WWII.

    2. I am a UC grad (‘long time ago), and am part of an effort in oceanic carbon sequestration (“negative emissions” as required by the latest IPPC report) as well as other efforts in renewable energy. There are a lot of other UC alumni engineers who are working in these areas as well, including spinoffs incubated at UC and technology ranging from offshore wind and wave energy to bioengineered catalysts for using kelp as a fuel or chemical feed stocks.

      We have the technology smarts, whether we are smart enough to implement them is a second question, but that is what Dan et al are doing.

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more