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How Voters Can Turn Climate Change Anxiety Into Policy

People of color, women, Democrats, and younger people are more concerned about climate change. But it may be Independents who have the power to transform worry into action.

By Thor Benson

“The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it,” celebrated astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once tweeted. There is overwhelming evidence that the climate is changing and that it’s partially due to human behavior. Despite this evidence, many don’t believe the climate is changing, or they feel that humans are not to blame if it is changing. Many say the climate has always changed, so it’s nothing to worry about, but the fact is the rate of change has escalated in dangerous ways and human civilization is not at all ready for the effects of this.

A University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College survey from July found that around 60% of Americans believe the climate is changing and that human activity is playing a role in this change. In terms of how people from different ideological backgrounds feel, it was found 50% of Republicans believe the climate is changing, while 90% of Democrats believe this. Experts say that no identifier is more important than party affiliation for determining if someone will believe in man-made climate change.

“If I only got one question to ask to determine if you accept that climate change is real… I would ask you your party,” Christopher Borick, the director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, tells MTV News. “The thing that matters the most is your political leanings.”

That said, Borick said more and more conservatives are starting to accept that the climate is changing and that human activity is a factor. Outside of political leanings, Borick said younger people are more likely to be concerned about climate change than older people. Over 90% of millennials believe climate change is occurring.

“People of color tend to be more concerned about climate change than white people. They are also more willing to support measures to deal with climate change, both by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and by adapting to changes that are already happening and are likely to come,” says Jon Christensen, an adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA. “Younger people are more concerned than older people, and women are more concerned than men.”

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Outside of how people feel about climate change, there is the question of if how they feel about climate change motivates them to vote in certain ways. Though a majority of Americans say climate change is an important issue to them, they typically rank it significantly lower in importance than things like the economy, national security and healthcare.

Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, says that liberal Democrats and moderate Democrats are the most motivated by climate change when it comes to going to the polls. He said young Republicans are motivated by it to some degree but not typically enough to vote for a Democrat over it.

“Independents are the most important group of voters in the general election, because they can go either way,” Maibach said. “A solid majority of Independents support climate action, and want to see Congress and the president do more to address it.”

Climate change has the potential to wipe out humanity, so you’d think it’d be at the top of people’s lists in terms of importance every year. However, because of how people view political issues and because they tend to focus on short-term, personal issues, it’s difficult to motivate people to put climate change above their own income or their own healthcare.

Borick said people tend to think about the upfront costs of addressing climate change first, which means they’re not thinking about the long-term benefits of tackling the issue. He said if you want to get people to care about climate change, you have to show them the short-term benefits of addressing it, rather than just depicting “doom and gloom.”

“Trying to make the case that you can address a lot of problems while you’re also addressing climate change is a good way to show the breadth of how important this is,” Borick said.

“To earn votes on the climate issue, candidates should be talking about the benefits of greatly accelerating the inevitable transition to clean energy, which include cleaner air and water, better health, and greater economic prosperity,” Maibach said.

Instead of telling everyone they’re sending their grandkids into hellfire if they don’t vote for candidates who will fight climate change, politicians and other political leaders should explain how the air we breathe and the water we drink can become cleaner by fighting climate change. New jobs in innovative fields will become available if we start fighting climate change. These are the things voters respond to.

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Voters will also become motivated to address the issue of climate change when they start seeing the negative effects of it in their daily lives. Ideally, we’d address it before then, but it’s likely many will care more about addressing it once they start noticing the consequences of not addressing it.

“Experienced weather over the last few years, I think, is raising the saliency of the issue for a lot of folks,” Borick said. “They’re seeing it more. I think Americans are experiencing it more. That makes it less theoretical and less long-term and more personal and immediate.”

Borick said people on the west side of the country experiencing drought and fires is making them more concerned about climate change. People in the Southeast experiencing historic hurricanes is making them think more about the climate. We’re already seeing how the dangers of climate change are making people rethink how they vote.

“Globally it seems to be true that people who are more likely to be hurt by climate change or are already being hurt by it seem to be more concerned and more supportive of actions to deal with it,” Christensen said. “This exposure to the risks of climate change is also correlated with class, race, income, and other factors that generally expose poorer people to higher risks from environmental disasters.”

Americans have seen climate change as something that’s far off in the distance for too long, Maibach said, and they’ve been misled to believe that clean energy isn’t affordable yet. He said clean energy could become our primary source of energy as soon as politicians are ready to help us adopt these energy sources on a large scale.

“The reality of clean energy is that it is cheap and ready to become our primary source of energy, if our elected officials would create the level playing field it needs to succeed in the marketplace,” Maibach said. “Fossil fuel dollars speak loudly and clearly in the marketplace of ideas. Unfortunately, they don’t tell the truth.”

Thor Benson writers about criminal justice, LGBTQ issues, women's rights, politics, drugs, immigrant rights, the climate, free speech, religion, privacy for The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Vice, Rolling Stone, ATTN: and elsewhere.

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