Climate reflections on the election

Some preliminary thoughts as the votes continue to be counted.

Joe Biden is inching toward the presidency with climate change on his mind. Last night, as it became clear he would need only one more state to win the Electoral College, the former Vice President took to Twitter to make his most confident statement yet.

“Today, the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement,” Biden wrote. “And in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will rejoin it.”

It wasn’t a particularly radical promise, at least in terms of climate policy. (As Cory Booker so succinctly put it in last summer’s primary debate, “Nobody should get applause for rejoining the Paris climate accords. That is kindergarten.”)

It was, however, yet another signal of the climate movement’s profound impact on the 2020 presidential race.

Climate change was Biden’s closing election argument

Before the polls closed on Tuesday, Biden made climate change the closing argument for his election. His campaign released two new climate-themed ads in the final days of the race, which ran on MSNBC, Comedy Central, and Cartoon Network, as well as online. This came alongside a similar climate push from progressive political groups, following research from MoveOn showing climate ads were most effective at firing up young voters.

With his tweet on Thursday, Biden also made climate change the opening argument for his presidency. It was the first thing he tweeted since the polls closed that framed his win as certain.

Climate voters and donors likely played big role

Because of the dire planetary stakes of the presidential race—“The whole world is on the ballot,” as Mary Heglar so perfectly wrote—climate-motivated donors and voters very likely played a crucial role in this election.

The Sunrise Movement alone says they contacted over 3.5 million voters in the lead-up to the general election, including 416,000 young voters in Pennsylvania; 333,000 young voters in Michigan; 152,000 young voters in Wisconsin; and 130,000 young voters in Arizona. And they were far from the only climate group with a get-out-the-vote effort.

In addition, a new class of “climate donors” also emerged this election cycle, helping Biden raise more than $15 million as of August. A lot more fundraising has happened since then.

We’ll know more on both the climate voter and donor fronts soon. (Biden just released a full list of his bundlers, and exit polls are on the way). But Biden’s closing and opening arguments alone are enough to indicate the importance of climate politics in this race.

Despite all this, climate politics still mostly ignored

It’s interesting, then, that so many key faces of the climate movement spent election night on my YouTube livestream with Eric Holthaus of The Phoenix newsletter, and not on national cable news outlets. (With one notable caveat: The Sunrise Movement’s Varshini Prakash was completely booked).

It begs a question we’ve had to asked ourselves over and over this election cycle: In the political Big Leagues, why are climate politics still so small?

Part of it appears to be cognitive dissonance. Most journalists—and, frankly, most of the American electorate—say they accept that climate change is real; that it’s a deadly and dire threat to human life and the economy; that it’s caused by fossil fuels; and that action must be taken. Most journalists also say they accept that climate change is quickly becoming a priority of Democratic voters. And yet, throughout this election cycle, climate change routinely got the short end of the stick. It was left to the end of presidential debates, if it came up at all. When it did come up, it was botched by moderators who didn’t really understand it. It was routinely ignored in panel political discussions; poorly framed in news articles; and lied about on Facebook. And on Tuesday, the state most likely to get swallowed by the ocean voted overwhelmingly for Trump—just in time to be hit by the 28th named hurricane of the season.

Who’s at fault and how do we fit it?

In a Nature news article published yesterday, many scientists wondered the same thing. Their conclusion was that scientists “must work harder to communicate the importance of facts, science and truth.”

Not every climate scientist agrees with that, though. Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, was particularly annoyed at the idea.

I tend to agree with Andrew. I’m all for scientists working harder on their communication skills. But if this election cycle has taught us anything, it’s that “facts and science are important” is not an effective message on its own. At least, not when half the American political system and the multi-trillion dollar fossil fuel industry supporting it are hell-bent on messaging denial, whatever the cost.

If American voters are ever going to take the climate crisis seriously, the information campaign must be more powerful than the disinformation campaign—and it must tackle the disinformation campaign directly. The only way to ensure that happens is to purge fossil fuel money from the institutions that shape elections.

Right now, the information campaign is compromised. In particular, American science and journalism—those tasked with educating the public—are frequent receivers of fossil fuel money. For that money, journalists and scientists receive the ability to do their jobs. In exchange, the fossil fuel industry receives heightened credibility with the two professions they’ve been working to undermine politically for the last 50 years.

Voters also must come to understand a basic truth: that environmental politics are about human life. When climate journalists, activists, and scientists engage in elections, it’s not on behalf of some faraway jungle. It’s on behalf of the American public. That’s why it’s so maddening when climate politics is ignored. Climate politics is about preserving and improving the ability to live. The ability to live is what politics is about.

There is no life without the environment. There is no life without Earth. Nature is not some faraway concept. You are in it all of the time. There is a lot of power in communicating that basic truth; this election has shown us that. It’s also shown us how much more work needs to be done until everyone understands.

OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED! To support independent climate journalism that holds the powerful accountable—and to receive HEATED’s reporting and analysis in your inbox four days a week—become a subscriber today.

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