Climate, Environment Sure To Reverberate in 2020 Elections

January 8, 2020
Climate change has emerged as a big determiner in the 2020 elections, according to recent polls. Above, a climate protest outside the White House on April 29, 2017. Photo: Mark Dixon, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Climate, Environment Sure To Reverberate in 2020 Elections

By Joseph A. Davis

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2020 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.

It’s a truism in U.S. elections that the environment is generally not a big issue. But this year, for the first time in many elections, that just might not be the case.

The impact of green concerns may vary, depending on where you do your reporting. But passion and self-interest, along with evolving voter demographics, will give an array of environmental issues strong prominence in the voting booth. 

Sure, there’s a lot of competition: The possibility of war. Impeachment. Health care. Jobs and wages. Drug costs. College debt. Gun safety. Abortion. Immigration. 

Those issues will all be important. But as the list of polls below shows, climate change (to name one environmental concern) is also a big determiner of how people intend to vote.

That’s at least partly because climate-driven impacts have become a hometown issue. Wildfires have devastated communities in California and the West. Floods have ruined neighborhoods along rivers and coasts. Hurricanes have destroyed homes and lives. 

The losses have become greater, and the connection of these things to climate has become clearer in the last several years.

  • A CBS News Poll in September 2019 showed some 72 percent of Democrats said climate change would be an important factor in their vote.
  • A poll in April 2019 by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that more than six in ten Americans felt that climate change was important to them personally. That “importance” trend was upward for both Dems and independents.
  • An April 2019 CNN poll found that 82 percent of voting Democrats viewed climate change as “top priority.”
  • A June 2019 poll for the League of Conservation Voters by Hart Research and Normington Petts found 71 percent of Democrats rating climate very important or most important.


Green New Deal as litmus test

In 2019, Democratic presidential candidates began competing to see who could be greenest on climate change. This is likely to carry over through the July 13 national convention in Milwaukee. After that the dynamic will likely change as the nominee confronts Donald Trump, one of the world’s biggest opponents of climate action.

Climate hit Democratic politics like a hurricane shortly after the 2018 election, when newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and a bunch of unknown leftish youngsters declaring a “Green New Deal” staged a sit-in in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. Pelosi, you may remember, is the only legislator who ever pushed a serious climate action bill (Waxman-Markey in 2009) through either chamber of Congress. 

The fact that they sat in Pelosi’s office, rather than that of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), tells the story. The goal of the Sunrise Movement (who had helped elect AOC) was to push the Democratic Party leftward. 


The Green New Deal eventually became 

a kind of litmus test denoting 

strong support of climate action.


Eventually introduced as a resolution, the Green New Deal, or GND, was an aspirational expression of a wide progressive agenda that included everything from nondiscrimination and healthful food to community ownership of industry, affordable housing and family leave. But it was not legislation that created a concrete program.

The Sunrise Movement had a way of aggressively and publicly confronting Democratic candidates and demanding that they endorse the GND. As the field of Democratic candidates grew, eventually to dozens, some candidates backed it in order to distinguish themselves. 

Eventually it became a kind of litmus test denoting strong support of climate action. One who differentiated himself was Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who had joined the race (may require subscription) in March 2019, focusing almost entirely on the climate issue. But he failed to gain traction and dropped out (may require subscription) by August. 


Presidential campaign a climate horse race?

The climate action didn’t end there. Thanks, perhaps, to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a number of Dem 2020 hopefuls began coming up with climate “plans.” These, too, were weighed against one another, and both news media and environmental groups compiled and compared them. 

Such line-ups were published by InsideClimate News, the Washington Post, CNN, CBS News, Wired, Axios, Vox, HuffPost, the Los Angeles Times, CNBC, the Guardian, NPR, Mother Jones, U.S. News and the Earth Institute, not to mention Greenpeace, the Sunrise Movement and others. Even some Republicans had climate plans.

Given the difficulty of comparing apples and oranges, however, the various plans tended to get compared according to the amount of federal spending they envisioned. Sen. Bernie Sanders (may require subscription) ultimately crushed opponents with a $16.3 trillion number. 

The episode illustrated that the competition to “out-climate” one another was also perhaps a progressivism contest. But it may also have illustrated how far the candidate plans were from practical legislation and politically actionable proposals.


After all that, however, the mainstream 

DNC-anointed debates went back 

to neglecting climate as a 

2020 presidential election issue.


During much of 2019, there was a deepening drumbeat calling for a “climate debate.” That was something the cable nets and political parties had largely scorned in previous presidential years. Even climate questions by cable debate moderators had been nonexistent to rare. But climate activists (especially the Sunrise Movement) made a big point of it in 2019 and most Dem hopefuls joined the call. 

But it is the Democratic National Committee that must bless and organize televised candidate debates, and a special climate debate had not been on the DNC’s program. Worse yet, the DNC imposed its will by penalizing candidates for taking part in unsanctioned debates. 

The exact reason for DNC opposition was a head-scratcher. The climate-debate proposal came up before the DNC meeting on Aug. 22-24, 2019, but the DNC rejected it. Ultimately, CNN held a televised “town hall” event on climate Sept. 4, with 10 candidates participating — but not on the same stage at the same time, and not all of the field participating. 

It was useful (may require subscription) and showed the importance of climate, but may not have showed big gaps among the candidates. After all that, however, the mainstream DNC-anointed debates (and the mainstream media who moderated them) went back to neglecting climate as a 2020 presidential election issue.


Beyond climate, many developing stories

It’s worth remembering that environmental issues in the 2020 election will go well beyond climate change. To paraphrase former Speaker Tip O’Neill, a lot of environmental politics is local … and regional. 

In the Pacific Northwest, the story may be coal terminals. In Florida, it may be red tide and sea level rise. In Houston, it may be petrochemical pollution. In Arizona, it may be water. In California, it may be wildfire and insurance. In Wyoming, it may be coal.

Climate underlies many of the major environmental issues. If Greta Thunberg and the Sunrise Movement (not to mention other activist groups) have taught us anything, it is that they can turn young people out, hopefully to vote, in greater numbers than in past years. This could make a big difference in 2020.

Turnout will vary from state to state according to many factors. Green groups may field organizing muscle. State environmental ballot measures may be another turnout influence.


Reporting resources

Political reporting is more art than science. But there are certain sources who are reliably helpful when covering the intersection of environment and politics. Many are generic, and your best sources may be specific to your geographic area, your candidate and your issues.

  • League of Conservation Voters: For decades, this group has applied the cutting edge of environmental issues to all kinds of elections. They have a lot of money (millions) to spend. Watch their ratings, endorsements, ad campaigns and contributions, which are all listed and explained on their website. They have a series of state affiliates, who may add a finer perspective to your story.
  • Sierra Club: The Sierra Club’s political strength is, first of all, its large membership and its state and local chapter structure — not to mention its youthful demographic. It has an array of well-funded PACs, both at the national and state level. It endorses candidates. It has an extensive press operation.
  • NextGen America: This is the group founded by billionaire Tom Steyer, who eventually entered the 2020 race as a Democrat presidential primary candidate. During its course, it has focused on climate and other progressive issues. It is youth-oriented, registers voters and is well-funded because of Steyer’s money.
  • Other Environmental Groups: Environment America Action Fund engages in particular races with door-knocking and registration. It has given $10 million to LCV. Also active is the Natural Resources Defence Council’s NRDC Action Fund.
  • Ballotpedia: This is an all-around encyclopedic election information source, searchable and online, that is a good starting point for getting up to speed on a particular candidate, race or issue. It includes sample ballots, election law, donations and races ranging from local to presidential. The inclusion of ballot measures helps with environmental coverage.
  • Center for Responsive Politics: This group, better known by its domain name,, operates a massive trove of online, searchable databases related to U.S. elections and politics. It’s an easy way of accessing, filtering, cross-indexing and organizing info about money in politics. It starts with Federal Election Commission filings from candidates and PACs, but also includes things like lobbyist registrations.
  • This group maintains a huge set of searchable online databases focused on money and donations specifically in state elections. Run by the nonprofit National Institute on Money in Politics, it gets down to individual races in state legislatures, and includes judges and ballot measures, as well as offers map tools.
  • Specialized Environmental Media: You can keep up with most environmental links to 2020 elections by following major environmental news media like E&E News, the New York Times, Bloomberg Environment and Environmental Health News.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet and Reporter's Toolbox columns. Davis also directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet, and compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 1. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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