Dems Poised to Benefit as Climate Change Emerges as an Election Issue

Will the moral imperative of climate finally emerge as a political issue?

There are clear indications that climate change is finally emerging as a critical election issue. As reiterated by those who participated in the first Democratic Presidential debate, most of the candidates have plans to manage the climate crisis.

It is not hyperbole to suggest that this may be the most important election in American history. We are rapidly running out of time to get a handle on the climate issue. If we are to succeed in staving off the worst impacts of climate change, we must act and we must act now.

To keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, we have to slash carbon emissions by 70 percent by 2050. To have a shot at reaching this goal, we must begin to seriously reign in CO2 by 2020. Failure to do so could push us past disastrous tipping points.

In the Democratic leadership debate on October 13th, climate change was a high priority issue for all but one of the contenders for the presidential nomination. In order of the strength of their climate action plans here are the six candidates:

  1. Martin O'Malley
  2. Bernie Sanders
  3. Hillary Clinton
  4. Lincoln Chaffee
  5. Lawrence Lessig
  6. Jim Webb.

Bold climate action from the next US President is crucial. As the world's largest economy and the leading voice in the international community, American leadership on climate change is essential.

In an article titled "Climate Change Issues May Decide the 2016 US Election," NextGen says that the next president must act boldly to accelerate the transition to clean energy:

“[C]lean energy sources will create jobs, save lives by reducing pollution, and drive the kind of economic growth that benefits all Americans. The global race for climate solutions and clean energy is already underway. The question for the public is whether the United States will seize this opportunity to lead, or be left behind as other nations reap the economic benefits.”

Climate action is also an important issue for Democrats who want to benefit from the deep pockets of Tom Steyer. He spent $74 million on political races in 2014 and to earn his support in 2016, candidates must pledge to generate half of the nation's electricity from clean sources by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050 (so far only O'Malley meets these criteria).

It is easy to be cynical. Many have hoped that American voters would wake up to the urgency of climate change in previous elections only to be disappointed. In the 2012 campaign, climate change was a non-issue, it was also a no-show in the 2014 midterms. However, it is not unrealistic to believe that climate change may finally emerge as an election issue in 2016. This view is buoyed by a New York Times Stanford University poll indicating that two-thirds of voters would support a candidate who pledges policy action on climate change.

"Whether or not candidates make this commitment will be a critical factor for Americans who are deciding what candidates to support at polls," wrote Steyer.

Climate change is also an important wedge issue for the Democrats, as it exposes Republican policy vulnerability. If climate change emerges as a key issue for Republican voters, the GOP's hopes to win the white house are in serious jeopardy.

The Papal Encyclical has deprived Republicans of their last vestige of legitimacy and they are now are at odds with voters on climate change and clean energy. None of the Republican contenders has unveiled a renewable energy strategy and none of them have suggested that we should abandon fossil fuels.

This is a more serious ballot box issue than it has been in the past. It is widely known that the majority of Democratic supporters accepts anthropogenic climate change and they believe that government has a responsibility to do something about it. This view is becoming increasingly prevalent among Republican voters. The majority of Republicans now say that they support climate action. Even some Republican presidential contenders are realizing that denial is politically untenable.

"This will be a make-or-break presidency as far as our ability to avert a climate change catastrophe," says Michael Mann, meteorology professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University.

The choice is clear, if America votes for a Democrat, (other than Jim Webb) we have a chance of staving off the worst impacts of climate change. If America votes for a Republican, the chances of reigning in climate change falls dramatically.

Republicans have painted themselves into a corner as none of their candidates have advanced a climate plan to slow warming. If climate change finally emerges as a pivotal election issue, the Democrats are poised to maintain their hold on the most powerful office in the world.

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Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: Stephen Melkisethian, courtesy flickr

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