It feels like a standard-issue attack ad—menacing voiceover, pulsing underscore, rust-tinted photos that signal dirt, grime, corruption. The narrator warns of a politician surrounded by “shady characters,” who is profiting off a dubious family business while running a campaign “flooded with dirty coal money.”
Here’s the twist. The politician isn’t Donald Trump, and the ad wasn’t paid for by Tom Steyer. The 30-second TV spot takes aim at South Florida Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who defeated Republican Carlos Curbelo for a seat in the House of Representatives. It was funded by the National Republican Congressional Committee.
There may be no clearer sign of the changing politics of climate change than this: The party of Trump — who has made every effort to rescue the ailing coal industry and has consistently undermined climate science — accused a Democrat of taking money from coal companies, citing their contribution to climate change. Welcome to the Upside Down.
Sure, pundits of one kind or another have declared virtually every election to be a turning point on climate change. This, they say, is the year when voters will clamor for a revolution and leaders will heed their pleas, but every year climate change remains a marginal issue. Democrats pay lip service to the apocalyptic predictions of climate scientists, and Republicans smear their opponents as “alarmists” or worse. And yet, 2018 was different. This year saw a subtle but significant shift in the way voters and politicians think about climate change.
Not only are more Americans worried about climate change than ever before, for the first time, a significant portion of the electorate rates climate change as a top issue. In 2016, climate change was the sixth most important issue for liberal Democrats, according to Yale and George Mason University, while today it’s their fourth most important issue. It may be higher still. A recent Marist poll found that, among all Democrats, climate change is the second most important issue, trailing only health care. And it’s not just Democrats. In particularly vulnerable parts of the country, like Florida, Republicans are worried too.
Politicians, in turn, are speaking to the ways that rising temperatures are imperiling their constituents today. In South Florida, where rising seas are flooding streets on sunny days, Republicans sound like Democrats on climate change. Curbelo, for example, recently broke with his party to propose a tax on carbon pollution. Francis Mooney, who cruised to victory in a safe Republican district in South Florida, has said the GOP should acknowledge that carbon pollution is fueling climate change and worsening sea-level rise. At the state level, Florida Republicans are more circumspect. Florida’s next governor, Ron DeSantis, has called for building protections to keep seawater at bay, though he has waffled on the cause of rising seas.
Elsewhere in the country, vulnerable Republicans demurred on climate change, but they championed clean energy. Embattled Nevada senator Dean Heller, who lost his seat, campaigned on extending the federal tax credit for electric vehicles. California Republican Steve Knight, who similarly lost re-election in his district north of Los Angeles, called for the Energy Department to invest in energy storage.
Where Republican incumbents dismissed the threat posed by climate change, Democratic challengers used the issue to bludgeon their opponents. Across the country, they brandished a bleak UN report on climate change to win the support of climate-conscious voters. From Michigan to Kentucky, Democrats called for the United States to stay in the Paris Agreement. Many campaigned on a transition to 100 percent clean energy by 2050, including Tony Evers, who narrowly defeated Scott Walker to become Wisconsin’s next governor.
Democrats also made climate and energy as local issues. Lizzie Fletcher, who ousted nine-term Republican congressman John Culberson in western Houston, drew support from swing voters fretting about extreme weather in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. New Mexico Democrat Deb Haaland won her election promising to protect indigenous communities by blocking all new fossil fuel infrastructure, while Joe Cunningham, the first South Carolina Democrat elected to the House in 25 years, ran against offshore drilling.
It may be that, after years of disregarding climate change, politicians are finally responding to voter preferences. Nearly eight in 10 adults want to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, but congressional aides grossly underestimate public support for capping carbon pollution. That may change. The 2018 election suggests that politicians are edging closer to the people they represent.
In addition to congressional races, this year saw a slate of ballot measures aimed at protecting public lands, curbing the use of fossil fuels, and bolstering clean energy. While several of these proposals failed, there seems to be growing support for climate initiatives. Voters in Washington State, for example, narrowly rejected a fee on carbon pollution, but the policy earned more support than a previously proposed carbon fee, despite the fact that fossil fuel companies spent tens of millions of dollars to defeat the measure. In Florida, voters approved a ban on offshore drilling in state waters, and in Nevada, they approved a proposal requiring the state get half its power from renewables by 2030.
The support for these measures is remarkable given that climate change has long been seen as a political loser. The conventional wisdom is that the issue is too abstract to resonate with voters, and that candidates would be better off speaking to kitchen-table issues like jobs and health care. Now it seems that climate change itself is becoming a kitchen-table issue. A recent poll found that air pollution, water pollution and climate change all ranked among Americans’ top fears, alongside not having enough money and being saddled with high medical bills.
Politicians — some of them anyway — are speaking to these fears. In an interview with Anderson Cooper on Monday, Senator Bernie Sanders said that climate change should be a top priority for Democrats in the new year, along with raising the minimum wage and lowering the cost of health care. “You have [the Trump administration] not even recognizing the reality of climate change and working hand in glove with the fossil fuel industry to put more carbon into the atmosphere when we have to transform our energy system,” Sanders said. “I want us to begin moving boldly to address the global crisis of climate change.”
South Florida’s newly elected representative, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, underlined this point in her victory speech. “We celebrate tonight, but very soon I have to start to work,” she said. “Together, we are going to work for a country where we finally take action to fight climate change.”