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“Our generation grew up watching as the climate crisis got worse and worse and politicians did nothing.” That might sound like a quote from teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, but it’s actually the opening line for a new series of political ads appearing in multiple states in the lead-up to the 2022 midterms — ads that the advocacy groups Climate Power Action and the League of Conservation Voters are hoping will tip the scales towards climate-focused Democrats.

Historically, however, climate change has not been much of a political kingmaker. Even when candidates trusted that their constituents did care deeply about the environment, it hasn’t been something that reliably changed votes. In the 2020 presidential election, for example, two-thirds of voters told exit pollster Edison Research that climate change was a “serious problem” — but 29 percent of that same group voted for then-President Donald Trump, a candidate whose position on climate change was … inconsistent … at best. 

So a $12 million ad campaign aimed specifically at promoting Democratic candidates’ climate change bona fides seems, at first glance, like a fool’s errand. But even though the content of these ads makes it clear they’re meant for a narrow audience — young voters, who see themselves as part of a generation bearing the consequences of inaction on climate change — the ads aren’t even for all of them. Instead, the groups funding these ads are trying to reach a specific sliver of a slice of a subset of young voters. And yet there’s reason to think that, on those slender margins, climate change could be becoming an issue that really sways elections.

One thing definitely working in favor of climate change as a voting issue this year is the existence of actual legislative change on climate, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Attempts to reach out to voters on climate issues are happening in context with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, President Biden’s spending bill that includes a number of tax breaks, new regulations, financing and incentives focused on reducing the country’s carbon emissions over the long term.

The passage of that bill is genuinely a big deal, Leiserowitz said. Outside of that, “there has been little to no major national action on climate change. And I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” he told me. 

The passage of the IRA is in keeping with what voters say they want. A large majority of Democratic voters think the Biden administration and Congress need to be doing more to deal with climate change — 82 percent according to a Pew Research Center survey from May. And that same report found that 58 percent of all Americans felt that the federal government wasn’t doing enough to combat climate change. Given results like that, it would be easy to assume that the passage of a federal bill finally addressing climate would be something that could really motivate voters — at least the liberal-leaning ones.

But the relationship between voters and climate policy has long fallen under the label of “it’s complicated.” There is an established gap between what voters say they want — action on climate change — and what they’re willing to do to achieve that. In 2019, for example, polling by Reuters and Ipsos found that while 69 percent of Americans wanted the government to take “aggressive” action on climate change, only 42 percent were likely to install solar panels on their own home; 38 percent were likely to begin carpooling to reduce emissions; and just 34 percent were likely to pay an extra $100 a year in taxes to support climate policies. And in 13 years of YouGov polls tracking which issues registered voters see as the most important, climate change has consistently taken a back seat to economic issues like jobs and inflation. As of Oct. 10, 12 percent of voters listed climate change and the environment as their No. 1 concern, while 22 percent cited inflation and high prices. It’s not that emphasizing climate change is a turn-off for voters — President Biden got a solid B+ on Greenpeace’s 2020 election Climate Scorecard. But neither is climate an issue that seems to attract voters on its own. Having the highest score on the Greenpeace scorecard during his candidacy was not enough to catapult Washington’s Democratic governor, Jay Inslee, to the White House.


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