Climate denial is dead – but the fight for green votes is about to get more interesting

This was originally published by Political Betting

Donald Trump’s tweet that the snow-blasted US east coast would benefit from some global warming has reignited attention to his climate-change denial. But after a year of his presidencyit’s increasingly clear that, in terms of both public opinion and policy, rejection of climate science is a sideshow.

Having a climate-change denier in the White House might seem like a triumph for people who want to stop action against global warming. Trump’s plan to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement certainly gives the impression he’s winning that fight.

But in reality, Trump has only shown that climate denial is defunct. When he tried to topple the climate deal, the rest of the world pushed back. No other country has joined his planned defection – instead several have accelerated their timetables for cutting greenhouse gas emissionsAnd investors are giving up on climate denialMajor fund managers like BlackRock are now demanding to know how emission cuts will affect their investments and are selling businesses that depend on fossil fuels.

And climate denial is a far weaker electoral force than it seems. Only about 10% of Americans firmly oppose climate action, with another 11% doubtful about itWhile Trump won among both groups, most of his voters can’t be described as climate deniers. And in the rest of the world, vanishingly few people think climate change is a hoax. Recent datafound that at least 97% agree climate change is happening, in 19 of the 22 countries polled for the European Social Survey.

If anything, the evidence points to climate change being an untapped electoral opportunity for environmentally-conscious politicians. In most European counties at least 20% are very or extremely worried about climate change.

In the UK, where 1 in 4 are very or extremely worried about climate change, it’s effectively been off the electoral battleground since Cameron’s husky-hugging Arctic trip.To most voters, it seemed there was a consensus among the major parties about the issue. But that could now change.

The Tories are hunting for ways to stop, and reverse, the loss of younger voters, put off them by values-driven concerns like foxes, Brexit and citizens of nowhere. Burnishing their approach to climate change might help the Tories: a UK YouGov poll for think tank Bright Blue found it’s the second-top subject that under40s wants politicians to talk about more, ahead of education, housing and immigration.

Meanwhile, other parties may see an opportunity in hitting the government harder on climate change. The Lib Dems, in particular, might wonder if they can appeal to the voters looking for a party with a more robust message on climate change.

Most voters, though, are in the middle on climate change. Around half the public have little doubt it’s real and a threat, and want it dealt with, but don’t think about it much. Satisfying them, while meeting increasingly tough climate targets over the next couple of decades, will be a growing challenge.

Trump’s climate denial will get attention as long as he’s in power, but we shouldn’t let that fool us into thinking he’s doing any more than appealing to a section of his base. The rest of the world has moved on, and the risks are far greater to parties that drag their feet than those that set the pace.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.


  1. Tom Harney says:

    I do not think we have even started to consider the underlying problems. Humans are now clearly in the position that we have to manage the earth. This applies to the waste we produce, whether in the form of gas or solid or liquid. It applies to the way in which we influence the flora and fauna that will survive. We are changing, and have changed, the ecosystem of the earth. We have no consensus on what we want to see. No idea how to get the results if we did agree on what we wanted. And no means of agreeing to do it if we did know where we wanted to go, and how to get there.

  2. Leo – thanks for this. It has long been clear to me that denial was a fabricated minority position and it is good to see the data on quite how minor it is.

    With regard to the public proponents of denial, I’ve yet to see any evidence that their public denial is more than just a facade adopted for political ends. For example, Myron Ebel, who is so senior in the denier hierachy that he rarely makes any public statement, made no hint of denying climate destabilization and AGW while constructively discussing, on camera, one particular mode of future mitigation burden-sharing across the nations while on a visit to the UK.

    The implication is that there is an expectation of the US benefitting, geopolitically and commercially, from intensified climate impacts globally, and that brazen denial is seen as the best means of blocking the commensurate mitigation that would prevent that outcome. China’s rather vulnerable food security appears the most probable target.

    With regard to the electoral possibilities of voters’ climate concern, I’d urge you to look carefully at Obama’s record on this issue. In neither of his campaigns did he go further than saying enough to attract Democrat climate votes – and in the very close-fought re-election campaign when asked why he made no use of this classic wedge issue to win the Independent vote and split that of the GOP, his spokesman could only provide the utterly lame excuse that “Everybody knows the candidates’ positions on climate . . . . ”

    Given a large number of extraordinary anomallies of Obama’s conduct on climate over 8 years of power, (such as blocking the EPA from meeting its legal duty to regulate carbon for 6 years, and reneging on his own Cancun Pledge) which culminated in his propsal for Paris of “Net zero global GHG emissions by 2100” – which is surely the classic expression of “the Denial of Urgency” – I observe that there is no particular reason to suppose that the geopolitical goal of letting Climate Destabilization rip is not a covert bipartisan policy, with each party playing it according to their electorates’ preferences. It is worth noting that the USA’s paramount bipartisan policy priority since WW2 has been the maintenance of America’s global economic dominance. The key question is thus: what other feasible options does the US have to halt China’s rise to global economic dominance ?


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