How 2024’s US election could affect the global fight against climate change

While climate change has yet to emerge as a major voter issue, advocates warn the ‘fate of planet’ is at stake.

A handmade US 2020 election sign in support of Joe Biden reads, "Vote Climate"
A handmade sign stressing the importance of climate change is seen outside an election polling station in North Carolina in 2020 [File: Jonathan Drake/Reuters]

With climate change fuelling more extreme weather events around the world — from record wildfires to powerful hurricanes, floods, heatwaves and drought — United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres offered a dire warning.

“We are playing Russian roulette with our planet,” he told reporters on June 5. “We need an exit ramp off the highway to climate hell, and the truth is we have control of the wheel.”

Yet, in the United States where Guterres delivered his remarks, the climate crisis has been largely sidelined in the lead-up to this year’s presidential election.

Environmental advocates have warned, however, that November’s showdown between Democratic President Joe Biden and his Republican predecessor Donald Trump will not only affect climate policy in the US but around the world.

“The US plays such an outsized role in both international politics and also greenhouse gas emissions,” said Ariel Moger, the government and political affairs director at Friends of the Earth Action, a US-based climate justice group.

“In many ways, I think the fate of our planet lies with the American voters”, she told Al Jazeera, “which may sound a bit hyperbolic, but I think that is the moment that we’re living in”.

Voter priorities

The US is the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China, and it produced an average of 12.9 million barrels of crude oil per day last year — breaking a previous global record from 2019.

But climate change has not been a major focus of the presidential election campaign so far, taking a backseat to economic issues, immigration and foreign policy.

Moger explained that those concerns may seem more concrete, compared with an issue as large and wide-ranging as the climate crisis.

“Climate change is often viewed as an overwhelming, existential threat in a world where people are just trying to get through their day,” she said.

“Many issues like the economy, abortion access — these are things that people are dealing with more regularly, or the threat feels more real to them.”

Still, recent surveys show that a majority of Americans want their political leaders to address the climate crisis and that many prefer candidates who will enact policies to that effect.

A report released last week by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University found that 62 percent of registered voters support candidates who pledge to take climate action.

“That’s overwhelmingly true among Democrats, but it’s also very true among independents and even half of liberal-moderate Republicans, which is about a third of the Republican Party,” Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale University programme, told Al Jazeera.

About four in 10 voters also said a presidential candidate’s position on global warming would be “very important” when deciding who to vote for in November, the report (PDF) found.

Still, several surveys show that climate change is not at the top of most Americans’ priorities: It falls far behind the economy, inflation and other topics voters said were more pressing.

A Gallup poll in May, for example, found that only 2 percent of Americans said climate change was the most important problem facing the country, trailing economic issues (36 percent), government and poor leadership (21 percent) and immigration (17 percent).

Climate change “makes the list, but it’s not considered the most important issue”, explained Ashley Dancer, a PhD student at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) who has studied how opinions on climate change affected the 2020 election.

“It’s superseded by things like the economy, health care, education and crime — those kitchen-table issues.”

Effect on close race

As the US enters its summer season on Thursday, wildfires continue to rip through states such as California and New Mexico, and a heat dome has descended across much of the country.

With extreme weather events expected to continue through the summer, Moger said she expects climate change to take up more space in election-related discussions.

“We’ve seen that, as more people suffer from record heat, drought, wildfires [and] hurricanes, the harder it is for candidates to ignore the reality of the crisis that is in front of us,” she said.

And in a close election — as November’s contest is expected to be — climate change could also be a deciding factor, Dancer told Al Jazeera.

“We know that now, most voters — which is about two-thirds — are concerned about climate change and want something done about it, and that this is increasing over time. These voters strongly prefer Democrats, and this preference is also increasing over time,” she said.

That is because, in the US’s two-party system, Democrats are viewed as more willing to acknowledge the dangers of climate change and address the problem, compared with their Republican counterparts.

US President Joe Biden walks to a podium to talk about an initiative to tackle climate change
Biden walks to a podium before delivering remarks on the White House initiative on climate change in November 2023 [Tom Brenner/Reuters]

Environmental advocates also note the differences between Biden’s and Trump’s climate policies are stark.

While in office, Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accord, the international agreement to cap greenhouse gas emissions. He also sought to open up vast tracts of US territory for oil and gas exploration.

In addition, he has regularly questioned whether climate change is real and downplayed its effects. And in a recent meeting with top US oil executives, Trump pledged to roll back some of Biden’s environmental rules if re-elected, The Washington Post reported.

For his part, Biden has not gone as far as environmentalists would like in phasing out fossil fuels, and he was recently criticised for approving a contentious oil drilling project in Alaska last year.

Still, he has regularly warned of the threat posed by climate change and urged global cooperation.

He rejoined the Paris climate deal in one of his first acts as president and enacted ambitious climate policies at home, including through the Inflation Reduction Act, which set emission reduction targets and allocated funds for the clean energy transition.

In a study released in January, Dancer and her colleagues found that the advantage that climate change provided to Democrats “was probably large enough in 2020 to change the outcome” of the presidential race. Biden defeated Trump in 2020 after winning by small margins in key swing states.

If climate change had not been as much of a concern, the study projected that Republicans could have enjoyed a 3 percent swing in the overall popular vote — “a shift [that] would probably have been pivotal” in the results.

“In a close election, climate change opinion matters,” Dancer said. “It did play a role in the 2020 election, so it likely will in this one [in November]. Whether or not it tips the scale will be determined by how close the election ends up being.”

In 2017, Trump gestures while speaking into a microphone at an outdoor podium
In 2017, Trump announced he planned to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change [File: Joshua Roberts/Reuters]

Political communication

According to Leiserowitz at Yale University, it is also incumbent on politicians to effectively communicate their climate policies if they want to connect to potential voters.

As it stands, few Americans — including those who care about the issue and make up the Democratic Party’s base — know much about the Biden administration’s positions, he explained.

Nearly four in 10 registered voters said they had heard “nothing at all” about the Inflation Reduction Act, for instance, according to last week’s report from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

“That’s an indication that, at least up to this point, [Democrats] have not adequately communicated their success to the American people,” Leiserowitz said.

“If you don’t communicate it, the vast majority of people are never going to hear about it, and they’re never going to connect the dots themselves. It’s just not true that policy is going to sell itself, and then you will reap the political rewards.”

Moger also noted that, while climate action “is extremely popular” and key constituencies — including young people and progressives — care about the issue deeply, voter turnout will be key.

“Biden still has time to … take some significant steps in terms of climate action,” Moger said. She called the Democratic president “far from perfect” but warned that another Trump term would spell climate disaster.

“We know that, under a Trump presidency, we would be seeing more policies that would take us in the wrong direction and lead to ultimately an uninhabitable planet,” Moger told Al Jazeera.

“If [the US is] not leading by example, then the entire world will be suffering, not just in terms of policy but in terms of the amount of emissions that we’ll continue to be polluting.”

Source: Al Jazeera