Climate Change: passing a political tipping point?

For the past year there have been hints of a significant shift in the U.S. political landscape on the question of climate change. Now, new polling numbers just out from Gallup confirm not just a shift, but a seismic shift, in public opinion on the question. The shift is so dramatic that we may have passed a key tipping point in the politics of climate change. If so, that would signal a welcome erosion in one of the last significant barriers slowing action in the U.S.

The tipping point on the science of climate change was passed nearly a decade ago when all of the authoritative science assessments confirmed what the vast majority of climate scientists already knew at the time: the planet is warming at a perilous rate due to carbon pollution.

More recently we passed by the tipping point in the economics of action on climate change. Over the last 10 years we have witnessed the equivalent of a 2nd industrial revolution in the energy sector, driving the price of renewable energy down through the floor. Wind and solar are now the cheapest roads going forward.

However, despite these changes, climate change politics in America remained stuck. Public opinion seemed to be deaf and blind to the science screaming from one side and the economics of renewable energy beckoning from the other.

The first hints of something new started appearing in early rounds of the Presidential race. Bernie and Hillary were duking it out to establish their credentials on climate change, marking the first time climate change has appeared as a campaign issue in the presidential race, indeed in almost any significant race at the federal level.

Now Gallup has released the results of its annual polling on climate change, and we can see what had candidates moving. Gallup tested voters with several different questions about climate change. The key question was whether voters saw climate change as the effect of pollution or as a natural change. And the key result on this question was to be found among independent voters.

Nationally, 64% of all Americans responded that they saw the connection between climate change and pollution. However, the jump among independents in the U.S. is nothing short of astonishing. Only one year ago 56% of independents saw the connection, but today fully 68% of independents agree that climate change is driven by carbon pollution. That amounts to a jump of 12 points in one year. That big of a jump is almost unheard of, and it is way larger than the error margin of the poll. There can be little doubt something is going on. In politics you rarely see numbers jump like that in just one year, particularly on an issue that’s not new to the scene, unless something is changing fast. Even 40% of Republicans are now saying that they worry a great deal or fair amount about global warming.

It’s pretty clear from the round up of the climate questions posed by Gallup that the swing in the U.S. did not have much to do with the warm winter. Something seismic is going on at the social level.

Importantly, independents are the swing voters in U.S., and as such they are the grand prize in politics, particularly in the Presidential race and Senate elections in swing states. No one can win the Presidency anymore by pulling support from just a base of Republicans or just a base of Democrats. Likewise, the key elections for control of the U.S. senate tend to turn on independent voters.

Much of the change among independents is likely due to what could be called the #ParisEffect: 300,000 people showing up in NYC calling to save the climate; Obama using the bully pulpit to rally support for action on climate change; the drumbeat of stories about China taking action; the Pope, the west’s most influential religious leader, coming out loud and clear on the threat of climate change; the many local campaigns and victories on climate change, including successful fight to stop the Keystone pipeline; and finally the grand stage in Paris where all the nations of the world lined up and agreed to tackle climate change

That kind of leadership display allows people to come out of the closet themselves. And when they do, they are often surprised to find out that their friends and neighbors feel the same way. That’s a political tipping point.

The political landscape must change still further before federal action can take the next big steps forward on climate change. Despite increasing agreement that climate change is a problem, most still don’t see the problem as a pressing concern calling for immediate action. But U.S. politics are notoriously non-linear. Political change often happens fast once the ball gets rolling. The election of an African American President (recently thought impossible by most) and the elevation of marriage equality are but two examples of how fast things change in U.S. politics once thresholds are breached.

May the ball for climate protection keep rolling.