Opinion

The sleeper issue of 2014: Climate change

The midterms have shown that Republicans are going to need a coherent message on climate change — and soon

For Democrats, there is one underappreciated bright spot in an election that will likely be a bruising one for the party: the increased viability of climate change as a political issue. Fueled both by grassroots activism and a whole lot of campaign cash, climate change is proving to be a powerful line of attack for many Democrats.

This has been most evident in Michigan, where climate change has become a major issue in both House and Senate races. The most remarkable of these involves newcomer Paul Clements (D), who is in a tight contest with incumbent Fred Upton, the Republican chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Upton was expected to cruise to an easy victory, and is slightly ahead, but Clement has been hounding Upton mercilessly over his denial of climate science — and it's paying off in the polls.

As Greg Sargent points out, climate change is a serious weak point for the Republican Party as a whole. While 61 percent of non–Tea Party Republicans believe in human-caused global warming, only 25 percent of the Tea Party does.

The contrast with the 2012 election is especially telling. Then, as you may recall, the words "climate change" were not spoken once during any of the three presidential debates. President Obama went so far as to boast that under his administration the nation had built enough pipeline to wrap around the entire planet. (Only a little more, and we can tie it in a noose!)

Meanwhile, Republicans have settled into an incomprehensible position on climate change, seemingly hoping no one will notice. For lack of anything better, they have embraced the formulation "I'm not a scientist" to deflect the issue. (Emily Atkin has a hilarious compilation of such dodges here.) The non sequitur of this position is immediately obvious even to the most casual political observers. As Republican energy lobbyist Michael McKenna told The New York Times:

It's got to be the dumbest answer I've ever heard... Using that logic would disqualify politicians from voting on anything. Most politicians aren't scientists, but they vote on science policy. They have opinions on Ebola, but they're not epidemiologists. They shape highway and infrastructure laws, but they're not engineers. [The New York Times]

Of course, Republicans aren't the only ones with bad energy policy. In red states where Democrats are running close, candidates have been distancing themselves from Obama's EPA policy and are prostrating themselves before coal power just like they've always done.

But there are reasons to suspect this dynamic may not last forever. The number of working coal miners had collapsed long before Obama was even elected, and the industry is obviously doomed in the long term, EPA policy or no. Meanwhile, local climate issues are increasing in relevance — the Keystone XL pipeline and fracking have become major political issues in many states. Renewable energy is very popular; even Cory Gardner, the GOP Senate candidate for Colorado, stands before big fields of windmills in his campaign ads.

Democrats are likely to lose in 2014, but this election, in which the GOP started with significant structural advantages, will not be indicative of national sentiment, as Parick Egan concludes in this historial analysis of the midterms at The Washington Post. "Simply put," he writes, "this year’s Senate elections are unrepresentative of the nation to an extent that is unprecedented in elections held in the postwar era."

If climate change managed to assert itself in a field so heavily tilted toward the GOP, then just imagine how important it will be when it tilts back toward the Democrats in 2016. We can expect that climate change will be a major political issue in the months and years to come.

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