With world leaders convening this week in New York for the U.N. Climate Summit, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres is putting pressure on countries to raise their ambition.
The Trump administration has taken the United States in the opposite direction by promising to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate agreement and by dismantling Obama-era climate policy. However, public opinion on the issue is changing, which may set the stage for political transformation by both parties.
A new survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows that for the first time, a majority (54%) of Americans describe climate change as a critical threat.
It is also the top foreign policy threat among Democratic voters. And although there is a vast partisan gap, more Republicans now say the problem of climate change should be addressed.
It has mostly been Democratic politicians leading on climate change, which is part of the problem. At the federal level, Democrats owning climate change and frequent divided government have narrowed available policy instruments to executive actions that are then undone when the White House is occupied by Republicans.
If both parties felt compelled by the electorate to compete to deliver climate benefits, some ideas that otherwise might not be embraced by Democrats could gain traction.
Both Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement have made climate change and the Green New Deal a visible issue. Their advocacy may have influenced Democratic voters’ perceptions. For the first time in Chicago Council polling, self-described Democrats name climate change (78%) as the top foreign policy threat to the United States.
As important is the fact that people have lived through climate emergencies across the country, from wildfires in California to floods in the Midwest to devastating storms and hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. The new results corroborate other surveys showing Democrats prioritize climate change as a leading issue.
As climate change is increasingly seen as a critical threat by Democrats, it has become a more central issue for presidential candidates.
Jay Inslee, who dropped out of the race, made it his signature issue. Leading candidates, notably Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, responded by issuing climate plans of their own. In the lead-up to the recent CNN town hall on climate change, almost all of the other remaining Democratic candidates followed suit.
But Republicans are gradually changing too. A small but growing eco-right segment of Republicans, conservatives and libertarians is embracing climate action, particularly carbon taxes.
A group led by former Secretaries of State James Baker and George Shultz and former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson endorsed a tax-and-dividend approach in lieu of regulation. Although their plan has problems, taxing carbon dioxide and distributing revenue to the public has long been endorsed by Democrats such as former Vice President Al Gore.
In the Chicago Council poll, only 23% of Republican voters consider climate change a critical threat, up slightly from 16% in 2010. But two-thirds now — compared with just half in 2010 — say that the problem of climate change should be addressed, either gradually with low-cost solutions (46%) or right away regardless of costs (20%).
Moreover, various surveys have shown that concern about climate change is highest among younger Americans and that the millennial generation’s Democratic leaning has only increased with time. Some Republicans worry that ceding the climate change issue will mean that younger Americans will no longer identify as Republican.
We can observe the benefits of having both Democrats and Republicans on board in another area, the international policy to fight AIDS. In 2003, President George W. Bush introduced PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The program has enjoyed bipartisan support and been reauthorized three times, including in the Trump era. Since its inception, PEPFAR has spent more than $90 billion and has supported nearly 15 million people on life-extending antiretroviral therapy.
Elected Republicans such as Reps. Matt Gaetz and Francis Rooney, both of Florida, have embraced climate action. Such moves may signal that Republican orthodoxy on climate is changing. If Democrats and Republicans could find some common ground on climate change at home or abroad, that could be incredibly consequential for the world.
Joshua W. Busby is an associate professor of public affairs and a Distinguished Scholar in the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at The University of Texas at Austin.
Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.