Between the widening hole in the ozone layer and the looming presidential election, it is no secret that things in America are heating up. What is surprising to many is just how closely global warming and the events of Nov. 4 are related.
New data published Monday by researchers at Yale and George Mason universities shows that voters are using the candidates’ stances on climate change as a major factor in determining where to place their support.
Two-thirds of registered voters rank global warming as “one of several” important issues that will influence their vote, and of the 9 percent of registered voters undecided by Oct. 14, 62 percent agreed with this statement, revealing that the candidates’ platform on climate change may be one deciding factor in the close race.
The study’s co-lead author, Anthony Leiserowitz Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, expressed surprise at the large proportion of voters who listed the issue as a top concern, especially given the recent economic troubles and the candidates’ lack of discussion on the topic. But he said the rising awareness is part of a larger trend he has seen in his seven years of researching American perceptions of and reactions to global warming.
“There has been a huge increase recently in media coverage and policymaker attention to the issue at multiple levels of government,” Leiserowitz said in an interview. “It is pretty easy to fit [this data] into the pattern we’ve seen in the past couple of years. Climate change has greatly risen as an issue of national importance.”
While the relatively high importance voters are placing on climate change could influence the close race, Leiserowitz said it probably will not play much of a role unless the two major party candidates — Sen. Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, and Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona — choose to call more attention to it. And neither candidate has been discussing the issue much in the past month, he said.
Yale Student Environmental Coalition member Matt Ramlow ’11 said the political concern with climate change makes sense, considering the extent to which environmental issues permeate subjects such as gas prices, alternative energy, international relations and social justice.
Ramlow also said that while Yale students tend to be aware of global warming and its political ramifications, only a small core would list environmental issues as their top concern. Many feel more strongly and are better educated about other campaign issues, he suggested.
Indeed, national data supports this observation, showing that only around 1 percent of registered voters listed climate change as the single most important issue determining their vote, according to the study.
While global warming may not be the deciding factor for most American voters, it certainly plays a more important role in the 2008 election than any before it. Marina Keegan ’12 said that when she was volunteering for the Obama campaign in New Hampshire last summer, she frequently discussed climate issues with voters.
Another statistic Leiserowitz pointed out from the study is the discrepancy between voter confidence in the two candidates’ platforms on the subjects. Undecided voters tend to trust Obama and McCain equally, with about 50 percent trusting each as a source of information on global warming. But McCain supporters were far more likely to distrust their own candidate on the subject of climate change: While only 15 percent of Obama voters expressed some level of distrust with their candidate’s view, the number was three times higher among McCain supporters.
Keegan explained the numbers by contrasting Republicans’ and Democrats’ relative concern for the issue.
“People voting McCain aren’t voting about climate change,” she said. “If they care, they’re voting Obama.”
Study statistics back up this statement: While three-quarters of Obama voters listed climate change as a major factor in determining their vote, the majority of McCain supporters said it was not an important issue.
Yale College Republicans President Matt Klein ’09 expressed confusion over the lack of faith in the McCain camp, stressing that McCain has been a leader in the Republican party in terms of awareness of environmental issues and, like Obama, supports a plan of carbon emission capping.
He pointed out that the survey’s wording leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
“A lot has to do with what we mean by ‘distrust,’ ” he said. “It is certainly possible that lot of McCain supporters are wary of him because he supports greater climate regulation than they like, whereas, generally speaking, most Obama supporters are okay with that.”
Ramlow and Keegan speculated that distrust of McCain could also be due to his emphasis on nuclear power or to the views of his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, on subjects such as drilling in Alaska and America’s continued dependence on a fossil fuel economy.
The election data is from the first wave of results of a larger project examining American views on climate change that will continue throughout the next year.