The more the climate debate changes, the more it stays the same. Polls show that the public is worried about climate change, but that doesn’t mean it is ready to bear any burden or pay any price to combat it. If President Donald Trump claws his way to victory again in Pennsylvania and the Upper Midwest, his path will likely go through abortion and climate change, two issues on which the Democrats are most confident in their righteousness and willing to embrace radical policies that appeal to their own voters much more than anyone else.
Joe Biden, the relative moderate, is subject to these forces. He dumped his longtime support for the Hyde Amendment prohibiting federal funding of abortion and released a climate plan that, even if more modest than the “Green New Deal” (a low bar), is clearly derived from it. There’s no doubt that climate is a top-tier issue for Democrats. In a CNN poll, 96 percent of Democrats say it’s very important that candidates support “taking aggressive action to slow the effects of climate change.”
It’s doubtful that mom, baseball and apple pie would poll any higher. Among the broader public, according to a survey by climate change programs at Yale and George Mason universities, 70 percent believe that climate change is happening, and 57 percent believe that humans are causing it. It’s easy to overinterpret these numbers, though. An Associated Press/University of Chicago poll asked people how much they were actually willing to pay to fight climate change, and 57 percent said at least $1 a month, or not even the cost of a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
The political experience of other advanced democracies is a flashing red light. In Australia last month, the liberal opposition lost what was supposed to be “the climate change” election, against all expectations. Polling showed that about 60 percent of Australians thought the government should address climate change “even if this involves significant costs.” It turned out that it was one thing to tell that to pollsters and another to vote to make it happen.
In France, gas and diesel hikes as part of a government plan to reduce carbon emissions by 75 percent sparked the yellow vest movement in car-dependent suburbs and towns, and had to be ignominiously reversed. The politics of climate change will be problematic for the duration, for several reasons.
The voters most opposed to the costs of climate action tend to be “deplorables” most easily dismissed by center-left parties at their own peril: voters in rural Queensland in Australia, economically distressed residents of unfashionable rural and semiurban areas of France, working-class voters in the Rust Belt in the U.S. Bearing real costs for the sake of the climate will always be a sucker’s game for any one country so long as there isn’t a global mandate for emission reductions.
Finally, whatever the costs, no one is going to feel any climate benefits anytime soon, or likely ever. The supposed upside of plausible policies adopted by the U.S. would be minuscule changes in the global temperature decades from now. All this should counsel caution rather than apocalyptic rhetoric and policies, although Trump has every reason to hope it doesn’t.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review. (c) 2019 by King Features Synd., Inc.