Trump Tests Climate Change Denial Against Public Opinion, Real-World Impacts

Large majorities in key swing states want to regulate carbon dioxide.

A news reporter doing a stand up near a sea wall in Cedar Key, Florida., is covered by an unexpected wave as Hurricane Hermine neared the Florida coast, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016. CREDIT: AP/JOHN RAOUX
A news reporter doing a stand up near a sea wall in Cedar Key, Florida., is covered by an unexpected wave as Hurricane Hermine neared the Florida coast, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016. CREDIT: AP/JOHN RAOUX

By Greg Dotson and Erin Auel

As the presidential election builds to a crescendo, extreme weather has brought climate change as an electoral issue into focus. Florida is facing its first hurricane landfall in a decade, resulting in the National Weather Service issuing its first-ever storm surge warning. At the same time, Louisianans are just beginning to clean up the damage from deadly August floods.

In a political season dominated by proposals for mass deportation and religious immigration bans, this is one of the few issues that has followed the predictable polarized path. Donald Trump says he’s “not a big believer in man-made climate change,” and that “there could be some impact, but I don’t believe it’s a devastating impact.” Hillary Clinton reflects the view of those who have most studied the issue saying climate change is an urgent threat.

Downplaying the potential for serious impacts from climate change is a crucial prerequisite for justifying the inaction proposed by Mr. Trump and this year’s Republican party platform. The GOP platform proposes to “forbid” the regulation of carbon pollution and “rejects” global efforts to tackle climate change. Trump wants to “scrap” environmental regulations and “cancel” the Paris Climate Agreement.

This proposed inaction fits well with the GOP’s efforts to court the support of the fossil fuel industry. During a speech in West Virginia in May, Trump told a crowd of coal miners and others, “We’re going to put the miners back to work. We are going to get those mines open…It is going to happen fast, and you are going to be back to better than ever before.” Never mind that numerous experts have refuted the claim that coal jobs are disappearing due to regulations and have demonstrated that market forces are to blame. At a North Dakota oil conference, Trump announced plans to align government policies for the unfettered production of fossil fuels.

While this approach has worked to gain the support of some in the oil industry, it’s at odds with reality. As the landmark report the National Climate Assessment found in 2014, “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.”

Less than two months after Mr. Trump’s coal speech in West Virginia, flooding killed 23 people there during a “one-in-a-thousand-year event.” A growing body of literature and statements from climate change scientists has made the connection between climate change and floods such as the one that happened in Baton Rouge and in West Virginia. The New York Times noted that Baton Rouge’s flood was the eighth once-in-500-year event to occur since May 2015.

Members of the West Virginia National Guard and local contractors remove debris from a flood ravaged area in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. CREDIT: AP/STEVE HELBER
Members of the West Virginia National Guard and local contractors remove debris from a flood ravaged area in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. CREDIT: AP/STEVE HELBER

The country’s largest oil and gas producing state, Texas, is also facing threats from extreme weather. Texans have faced both devastating floods and intense drought in recent years. Scientists are teasing out the role of climate change in the state’s droughts and floods. And yet in September 2015, Trump told a Dallas rally, “you can’t get hurt with extreme weather.”

In California, the most severe drought in a millennium hurt farmers and resulted in billions of dollars in damages. Residents were required to reduce water usage for over a year and the state is strategizing for how to deal with prolonged drought due to climate change. But at a campaign event in the state, Trump suggested that “there is no drought;” he told another California audience that if elected, he would “start opening up the water.” Of course, dealing with climate change is not as simple as denying its severity and saying the modern-day equivalent of, “let them eat cake.”

While there may be little question about which presidential candidate states like Texas and California will support, Trump’s climate denial is at odds with public opinion in the swing states that will decide the outcome of the election. In Colorado, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, at least 75 percent of surveyed adults support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Over 60 percent of respondents in those same states said that global warming will harm future generations.

In the swing state of Florida, the disconnect between Mr. Trump’s view and public opinion is particularly pronounced. According to analysis from the Center for American Progress, since 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent more than $2.2 billion in Florida due to hurricanes. With the number of severe hurricanes increasing and the increasing frequency of severe hurricanes attributed in part to climate change, this issue appears to resonate within the state. In a major increase from the past, polling from earlier this year show that more than 80 percent of residents of peninsular Florida are concerned about climate change and more than 60 percent of Floridians believe the federal government is responsible for dealing with climate change.

The weight voters give climate change in the 2016 election remains to be seen, but with serious climate impacts occurring throughout the country and increasing public concern about the issue, the political landscape may be changing quickly. When surveyed in 2014, just 31 percent of Louisiana adults thought climate change would harm them personally. Will the devastation in Baton Rouge and elsewhere in Southern Louisiana affect public opinion in the state? And if so, will Louisianans expect a response from its political leaders on the issue? The answers to these questions may point to the future of climate change as a political issue.

Unlike other aspects of his campaign, Mr. Trump has followed a conventional right-leaning approach to handling climate change in a campaign — appeal to the conventional fossil-based energy industry while ignoring the serious economic consequences and harm to human health that climate change poses. This approach is out of step with the voters in states he must win if he hopes to prevail in the November election. As the public continues to better understand the seriousness of climate change, especially in swing states and potentially even in states as red as Louisiana, the viability of this strategy could decline even further.

Greg Dotson is the Vice President for Energy Policy at American Progress, and on Twitter @1gregdotson. Erin Auel is a Research Assistant at the Center for American Progress, and on Twitter @eauel.