We’re living through a train wreck. It’s a slow-moving train wreck rather than a two-day train wreck, but it’s happening, and we’re living through it.”
– Tom Steyer
At a panel discussion at Stanford this past fall, Tom Steyer — the billionaire hedge fund manager and environmentalist founder of NextGen Climate Action PAC — and Steve Chu — former Secretary of Energy and Nobel Prize winner in Physics — discussed the politics of climate change in the United States and around the world.
Chu and Steyer kicked off the conversation by offering unoriginal but insightful economic solutions: Chu proposed a straight tax on carbon, while Steyer advocated cuts to oil and gas subsidies in order to pressure Americans into decreasing their demand for fossil fuels.
While Chu and Steyer’s financial solutions make economic sense, these solutions are relatively old, hackneyed positions in the fight to reduce America’s emissions, and are dependent on America’s uncertain will to pursue aggressive climate change reform. Americans have yet to reject coal and nonrenewable energy in favor of solar and wind — in theory or in practice. The problem, then, is not necessarily one of inadequate solutions, but instead one of inadequate resolve.
However, that resolve need not remain stagnant forever. By focusing on a new strategy for advocating climate change reform based on demographic trends — call it the demographic imperative — environmental advocates like Steyer and Chu might make greater progress toward broader adoption.
As a 2010 Yale and George Mason study reports, “Hispanics, African Americans, and people of other [non-White identifying] races were often the strongest supporters of policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even when informed that some of these policies would entail individual costs.” The report goes on to point out that lower-income U.S. citizens are likely to disproportionately feel the consequences of climate change, such as heat waves, extreme weather events, environmental degradation, and the resulting disruptions in the labor economy.
Considering that a disproportionate percentage of low income residents are Latino and Black — and that the U.S. Census projects that by 2043, whites will no longer constitute the majority of the U.S. population — climate change activists should employ a demographics-focused approach in order to bolster their current climate reform efforts.
Such a demographic approach would entail 1) grassroots organizing and education in minority communities to convert passion into political energy, 2) focusing on minorities in political advertising, and 3) get-out-the-vote sweeps in minority communities that promise climate change action as incentive to go to the polls. These measures will not only spread awareness, but cement in voter’s minds a political party’s dedication to tackling climate change head on.
Which party is more likely to implement this new approach to vote-getting? The answer hinges on a partisan divide with respect to climate change attitudes. Over the past ten years the percentage of Republicans who think climate change has already begun has actually decreased from 50 percent to 30 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of Democrats who think that climate change has already begun has increased from 60 percent to 70 percent. So, the Democrats seem to have the upper hand in implementing the strategy, especially considering that the Democrats already benefit from overwhelming support from minorities.
Furthermore, the Democrats could benefit in several crucial swing states by implementing such a strategy. A recent Stanford poll suggests that harnessing the Hispanic vote could help Democrats pick up votes in vital states such as Colorado and Florida. The Democrats are no strangers to using ethnic demographics to their advantage: look to the Obama presidency, the DREAM Act in New York, or Texas elections. If Democrats continue this trend, a much-needed emphasis on climate change policies could both mobilize their base and also establish climate change as one of the most pressing political priorities of our times.
Despite gains to be had from shifting the political climate in America, the prospects for such a shuffling of priorities look grim. When world leaders recently converged at the United Nations, President Obama delivered a “forceful but largely detail-free speech that sought to reassure the world about the United States’ commitment to reaching a global climate agreement … while leaving the specifics for later,” according to Politico. And issues like minimum wage, health security, immigration, same-sex marriage, unemployment, and the Affordable Care Act remain at the top of the priority list.
Nonetheless, by more explicitly tying climate change to the well-being and security of minority voters, the Democratic and Republican parties have a unique opportunity to make progress on the climate change problem. A demographically conscious approach, in combination with traditional policy solutions, may work wonders in improving the politics of climate change. Who knows? Maybe if the Democrats felt strongly enough about such an approach, this could herald the return of an Al Gore presidential candidacy — although this seems about as likely as a decisive slash of carbon subsidies.
Micaela Suminski, a sophomore studying urban studies, is the chief of staff of Stanford Political Journal.