Can climate change impact election outcomes? This researcher says yes – in big ways

Matt Burgess (left) and Renae Marshall (center) moderate a panel with Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo, about bipartisan ways to address climate change back in 2022. Credit: Glenn Asakawa/CU Boulder, courtesy of Matt Burgess.

In December 2022, Matt Burgess was casually chatting with Chris Barnard at CU Boulder’s UN Human Rights Climate Summit when a lightbulb went off in his head.

“He said something to me like, ‘You know, in our internal polling, what we keep seeing is that climate change and abortion are the two issues that the GOP is the weakest on, especially with young voters, but I haven’t seen anybody try to quantify rigorously what the effect of that is on election outcomes. Do you know of that?”‘ Barnard asked Burgess.

Burgess wasn’t aware of that, but found it interesting; interesting enough to conduct an entire research project.

“And so I remember saying to him something like, ‘you know, you might not like what I find. I might find that there isn’t much of an effect and you know, I’m a scientist. I’m going to publish what I find, whether you like it or not.’ But it, it turns out that he was right and I was wrong. Uh, and, and so, you know, we did, we did find an effect.”

To hear more about that effect, KGNU’s Jackie Sedley sat down with Burgess for the latest segment of A Public Affair.

Listen here:

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    Matthew_Burgess Jackie Sedley

Matt Burgess is an assistant professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, as well as the Director of the Center for Social and Environmental Futures at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences also at CU Boulder.



Jackie Sedley:  Your latest research that we’re talking about today focuses on estimating the effects of climate change opinion on US presidential elections. So let’s start with the study itself. What piqued your interest in finding correlations between climate change and voting behavior? And how did you go about even studying this, using layperson’s terms to describe the study dimensions, if possible.

Matt Burgess: Sure. So the origins of this study are actually really interesting.

So my research group has been interested for several years now in where’s the common ground on climate change. And related to that, I got to be on the steering committee of CU Boulder’s UN Human Rights Climate Summit that we hosted in December 2022, and I helped them organize two panels on bipartisanship around climate.

And one of the panelists on one of the panels was somebody named Chris Barnard, who’s now the president of the American Conservation Coalition, which is a group of young Republican climate activists. He then I think was their VP external. And at one of the receptions of the UN Summit on the sidelines, he said something to me like, ‘You know, in our internal polling, what we keep seeing is that climate change and abortion are the two issues that the GOP is the weakest on, especially with young voters, but I haven’t seen anybody try to quantify rigorously what the effect of that is on election outcomes. Do you know of that?’ And I was like, no, that’s pretty interesting. And so I said to him, you know, I, I think, I think I might try to do this. Now, I was also aware at the time of polls that we mentioned in our report that suggests that although most Americans think climate change is an important issue, most Democrats even don’t think it’s the most important issue.

And so I remember saying to him something like, you know, you might not like what I find. I might find that there isn’t much of an effect and you know, I’m a scientist. I’m going to publish what I find, whether you like it or not. But it, it turns out that he was right and I was wrong. Uh, and, and so, you know, we did, we did find an effect.

So our report basically does three things. So the first is we review a whole bunch of different polling data from different sources to look at what is climate opinion and different ways to slice it, right? How many fraction of voters say it’s important? What fraction of voters say it’s the most important?

Where is there common ground on specific policies? So we do that. And then we have data from this group called the voter study group that has about four and a half thousand voters in 2020 presidential election and about seven and a half thousand in 2016. We have data on 22 issue opinions and then demographics and who you voted for, for all those voters.

And so we, and when I say we, we attain the data from them. The Voter Studies Group is a non-partisan group that I’m not a part of that just makes their data available. And so when I saw that, I, you know, I thought, well, hmm, we could, we could estimate the effect, right? Or we could try to, right? We could try to tease out, because we have all this information for individual voters, we could tease out, how does climate change compare to other things as a predictor of who you vote for?

And is it possible to separate it out? So without going into the gory details, we ran a couple of different types of statistical models. One that’s more traditional statistics, and one that’s machine learning based, to try to estimate what the effect of climate change is. And then we asked, what would happen to the popular vote if we turn the effect of climate change off?

And then we made a model that simulates the electoral college probabilistically and to try to estimate, if there was a particular vote shift in the popular vote in one direction or the other, probabilistically, what would that have done to the outcome? And so, the, the headline of what we found is: across a whole bunch of different polls, including that one, the fraction of voters that are, I would consider climate conscious — so either they’re saying they care about climate change, they think it’s important, or they favor government action on it in general — is roughly two thirds of voters, give or take a bit, depending on the question, but a clear majority and about twice as large as the fraction of voters that doesn’t care and doesn’t want the government to do something about it.

And those voters that care, strongly prefer the Democrats, even if you control for other things about them. And if you put those two facts together, it logically follows that there’s an advantage in elections to the Democrats from the climate change issue, right? Most voters care about the issue and the voters who care about the issue prefer them.

Then we’re trying to quantify how big is that effect? That’s challenging. And again, I won’t go into the gory details, but basically our estimates range from 3%. So if you turn the climate change effect off, the Republicans gained something like a 3 percent shift in the margin. So think about a one and a half percent moving from the Democrats to them, or twice, that about 6 percent, and in between.

And so the effect of climate is, in other words, basically the opposite of that. So if you turn off climate and the Republicans gain three percent, then that means that climate costs them three percent, right? So then when we simulate the electoral college with the climate change effect off, if it’s a 3 percent margin swing, then in our model, Biden goes from winning 85 percent of the time with the status quo to losing 85 percent of the time with this margin shift.

And so that’s where our, our headline that’s been quoted a lot in the media comes from that we think the effect was probably large enough to change the outcome of the 2020 election.

Sedley: So I am very, very curious for you to explain how this might have implications or predictions for the 2024 election. But first, starting with previous presidential elections, how did climate change opinion affect voting behavior in 2016 and 2020? You were just starting to get into that.

Burgess: Yeah. So in terms of affecting the outcome, we only paid attention to 2020 because Donald Trump already won in 2016. And so if you turn off the climate effect, the answer is he wins by more, right?

It’s not as interesting. The degree to which climate change opinion predicts the voting behavior, we found it was pretty strong in both elections, but it was stronger in 2020 than in 2016, and the fraction of voters who said that climate change was important, which is how that survey phrases the question was larger in 2020 than 2016.

So, if you continue that trend, the default expectation would be that the effect of climate change might even be larger in 2024 than what we saw in 2020. It’s also important to note that Donald Trump was the nominee in both of the elections that we looked at, and he may be the nominee again.

So, you know, I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t say, I can’t say for sure. I would say all else equal, it would seem likely that that effect will remain and, and maybe even be larger unless either the Republicans nominate somebody else who has a different climate stance, and certainly there’s a contrast between Donald Trump and Nikki Haley on climate change that’s emerged in the last few months.

It’s possible that Donald Trump might change his stance, right? He’s changed his stance on other issues in the past. My impression is he’s more of a populist than he is an ideologue. And, and so, so, so that could happen. And then, of course, we found that climate-conscious voters historically have preferred the Democrats.

That doesn’t mean that everything the Democrats will ever propose on climate will necessarily be popular or that voters will always have that preference. Um, and so it’s certainly possible that the Democrats might propose something, you know, between now and the election that’s unpopular. I don’t think that’s super likely, to be honest, because the policies that, that the Biden administration has passed, polls suggest, are pretty popular.

They have a lot of elements, something that, that I and a former student of mine named Renee Marshall, who’s at UC Santa Barbara now, have written about in the past. She’s a co-author on this report too, by the way. Something that we’ve written about in the past is that the IRA, or the Inflation Reduction Act, even though it was partisan, it was not bipartisan, uh it has elements in it that are similar to elements that bipartisan legislature have passed at the state level. And so if you couple that with the fact that most of the money is going to red districts because that’s where you build renewable energy, for example, I suspect that the policies like the IRA are more likely than not to be electorally and politically durable because there are some. Left wing climate policies that are divisive, but as far as I can tell, that isn’t one of them.

Sedley: So I know that your study wasn’t arguing climate change as the number one concern among voters that was made clear.

Burgess: Uhhuh.

Sedley: So if that’s true, why is it such a strong predictor of voting behavior?

Burgess: That’s a great question. The short answer is the data that we’ve looked at can’t directly tell us the answer. Um, and, and that contrast that you pointed out, again, is the reason why I wasn’t sure we were going to find what we did, and, and, you know, I was, I was wrong when I was talking to, to Chris Barnard. So what are my hypotheses?

I have two basic hypotheses about what could explain this contrast. So one is, there’s probably a lot of voters, and I resonate with this personally a little bit because I’m a Canadian, and in Canada, I sort of am this voter. So, so over the past 10 years, I’ve swung between supporting the Liberal Party, which is Justin Trudeau, and the Conservative Party, which is kind of the center-right Party, and I wouldn’t say climate change is my number, is the number one issue for Canada, although it is an important issue, you know, probably housing affordability is the number one issue in Canada right now. But I would not vote for a climate denier under any circumstance.

Now, why? Because, because if somebody, the evidence for climate change being real is so strong that if somebody’s denying the issue altogether, then I wonder, you know, what science are they reading? And, and, and what are the implications of that for how much I should trust them on other issues? Or maybe they’re not saying what they really believe about climate change.

And what does that say about how much I should trust them on other issues? Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate disagreements to have about climate policy, right? I don’t necessarily agree with any particular party’s climate policy all the time. But, you know, you want somebody who is scientifically literate, and you want somebody who follows the courage of their convictions, right?

And so maybe there are independent voters in the United States that have the same type of mindset that I have in Canada, that, you know, yeah, climate change maybe isn’t our number one issue, but it’s an issue, it’s an important issue, and if somebody’s not even willing to acknowledge that it’s an issue, even if there’s disagreement about what to do about it, then, then I wonder if there’s a trustworthiness implication.

The second explanation is, you know, what are the issues that people rank higher than climate change? It’s issues like the economy, security, health, crime, immigration. Most, if not all of those issues, are affected by climate change. So climate change certainly affects the economy, it certainly affects health, it certainly affects security, it probably affects immigration, there’s a couple of studies even that suggest it affects crime.

And maybe Americans are becoming more and more aware of those connections, such that even if they’re not saying climate is the number one issue when asking to compare it to the economy, they still understand that if we want to have a strong economy, not only do we want to limit the effects of climate change, we also want to lead the world in the technologies that are going to be the future of the global economy.

Right? We want to be able to be the leaders and export our leadership to the world because that will be great for our businesses. That’ll be great for the general idea of American exceptionalism, which is popular on the right and popular in the middle. So those are kind of the two ideas. And then I guess the third one that’s, that’s not mutually exclusive is just, you know, elections are so close that climate change effect doesn’t have to be that big to be pivotal, right?

One and a half percent moving from the Democrats, the Republicans, or vice versa is not that big. Trump lost Michigan by something like 10, 000 votes in 2020, right? You don’t need that big of an effect to move 10, 000 votes in Michigan, right? From one side to the other.

Sedley: That’s so interesting. I’m curious, when you’re talking about your personal perspective on the way in which climate change may sway your votes or the votes of voters like you – can you get more into the weeds of how climate change opinion varies across regions and demographic groups, different ways that you can potentially, or that you were in your research, predicting how people would vote? Because that’s harder to conceptualize, I feel like.

Sure. So, so there’s lots of different variations demographically, right?

So age is a big one. Younger voters are more concerned about climate change than older voters, especially among Republicans. So among, among Democrats, there’s high concern across the board. Among Republicans, there’s a big age gap, where younger Republicans are much more concerned than older Republicans.

Um, on race. What we saw in the data that we looked at is that white voters are more polarized. So among Republicans, non-white voters are more concerned. Among, you know, liberal Democrats, white voters are more concerned. I think overall, non-white voters are somewhat more concerned, on average.

Those are the two that we looked at specifically regionally. The sample that we looked at isn’t large enough to get really fine-scaled regional analysis, right? We, we, talking about four and a half thousand voters in 2020, right? You’re not going to have a great sample in all 50 states, right?

But if you look at the broader body of evidence and polling on this, certainly places that are very fossil fuel-dependent are, I think, understandably and rightly more concerned about what the implications of the transition are. So, for example, I think the state with the lowest support of any state in, in Yale’s Climate Opinion Map Study for government action on climate change is Wyoming.

That makes a lot of sense if you think about the economy of Wyoming. Now, it’s also worth pointing out that Wyoming is a great place for carbon capture and wind. And, and so there’s, there’s, there’s growing industries in that. So I, I think that’s where you get some of the regional differences. But even regionally, there’s a high level of overall concern that translates to a majority in a lot of places you might not think. So my favorite example of this is in the 2021 Yale Climate Opinion Map they just released the new one last week but in the 2021 one that I’ve looked at before, I think it’s the case that a majority of constituents of both Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene think that Congress should be doing more to address global warming.

So again, if you’re talking about two thirds of the country, give or take, that’s going to be a majority in a lot of places.

Sedley: Okay, so that’s kind of the general regional and demographic look. You’ve already kind of touched on how climate change fits into this broader political polarization of Democrats versus Republicans, the importance in those categories, but can you speak on the degree to which Democrats versus Republicans trust that the person they elect will actually address issues in the way they want to? Is there a trust there?

Burgess: That’s a really great question. So first of all, Democrat and Republican divide somewhat masks a more interesting divide between the hard right and everybody else on a lot of climate questions. So moderate Republicans are, have a high level on average of concern about the issue.

There certainly is also a tribal element to this, right? So, and you see this on both sides. So I have a colleague named Leaf Van Boven who’s the chair of psychology at CU and he had a study from a few years ago that found that the support among Democrats for a carbon tax policy that I think was based on the real one that was proposed on a ballot measure in Washington state went down by about half when you told respondents in the survey that it was the Republicans proposing it.

So people will support the same policy less if they think it’s the other party proposing it. And, and the same thing certainly goes the other way, right? So, uh, you know, I, I want to say a good example of that might be Obamacare. Obamacare is pretty popular now, but there was a time when, you know, if you ask people about, Individual elements of it, like, say, expanding Medicaid, there’d be huge support across the aisle, but then, do you like Obamacare?

No, right? And some of that is the, you know, maybe it’s that some people, they don’t like Obama, right? Or they don’t like the Democrats. So certainly that’s an element that’s been seen in research a lot.

So, did your report seek out to offer any recommendations as to how to reduce political polarization around climate change, or was the intention more to just lay out the data and let it speak for itself?

Our report was very explicit explicitly took the latter position. So we explicitly said in the report something like, we are aware of politicians and advocates having a wide range of angles on this, and we are not going to editorialize about it, and we’re going to let our results speak for ourselves.

My research group, in general, though, is very interested in understanding where the common ground is. And, and I would say we have characterized a lot of different elements of it in our broader body of work, right? So, where’s the common ground on climate change? Broadly speaking, I would say it’s policies that are aligned with economics.

Right? So policies that are going to be too expensive, even in the short term are going to be unpopular, but policies that are economically beneficial. So provide subsidies like the Inflation Reduction Act does. Um, and that are also framed in economic ways, like not, you know, the world’s going to end. And so we need to, you know, raise our gas prices.

That’s not going to be popular, but you know, the world is changing and we have the opportunity as exceptional Americans to be on the front tier of that and and boost our economy and our competitiveness globally. That’s going to be more popular. Related to what I just said, doomism is not popular.

Histrionics is not popular, right? If you say, which I think John Podesta said to the New York Times when the IRA negotiation was happening and it looked like it might not pass through Joe Manchin, he said something like ‘it’s odd that he’s choosing this as his legacy to be the president. One person who single handedly doomed humanity.’

The idea that the IRA is the difference between humanity living or dying is just not, not right. And, and, and, and, and so that’s the kind of, that kind of rhetoric I think hurts parts of the left when they, when they, when they engage in that. Similarly, Most Americans are patriotic, and I have a paper coming out that makes this point soon, that most Americans are patriotic and there’s a negative correlation between being patriotic and caring about climate change.

So probably that’s a big blind spot among climate advocacy, right? If you go around and say, America is this horribly backwards country, we never done anything right. All we do is rapacious racial capitalism But rest of the world, you should follow our lead into the climate sunset. First of all, Americans would be like, wait, why?

And certainly other countries are going to think the same thing, right? If you’re saying that we’re horrible, why should we listen to you about anything? Um, and, and both doomism and anti-Americanism I think are also deflating, right? We, we need to build a lot of things to get climate solutions done and building requires a can-do attitude. Building also requires things like thinking about, you know, we’ve been talking about permitting reform a lot in the news recently, thinking about, you know, how do we make it so it doesn’t take six to eight years to get a federal permit for an interstate power line, right?

If you want to decarbonize the grid by 2035, you might have almost no shovels in the ground, right? And, and that’s an area where there’s a lot of natural territory for Republicans to add value there. Everybody likes American competitiveness, right? The world is moving this way.

We should be the leaders. Everybody likes technology. We want to develop technology. Developing technology helps our economy. Everybody likes clean air and clean water. And, and so emphasizing those benefits of climate solutions is something that resonates with a lot of people. So those are the main ones.

And then, and then in the analysis that we published about a year ago, looking at bipartisan bills at the state level, we found that the three strong correlates of bipartisanship, in state level decarbonization bills, were expanding choice – so carrots as opposed to sticks, instead of banning something, we’re going to give an incentive or something – financial incentives, and then framing elements addressing inequality in terms of class and kitchen table issues, and not in terms of immutable characteristics.

So not in terms of race. And there’s another study by another group that saw a similar thing that if you frame the same policy – they looked at climate and several other domains – if you frame the same policy in terms of race or in terms of kitchen table issues, it’s going to be more popular across the aisle in the second case.

Sedley: Are there any implications that you see your research having or any other points of interest that we didn’t touch on that you feel are important to highlight?

Burgess: I think we’ve touched on the main stuff. I think the obvious implication of this is that voters care about climate change, and both parties have an opportunity to offer voters something to grab onto there. And I think, you know, this doesn’t come directly from the study, but just my personal opinion is that if we really are serious about changing all of society over decades, if that’s what it’s going to take to address this problem, then there’s no other way that’s possible besides doing it together.

And so what I would love to see come out of this study is an intelligent conversation across both parties about what to do.

Sedley: All right, Matthew. Thank you so much for joining me. I appreciate it.

Burgess: Yeah. Thank you very much for having me.

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Jackie Sedley


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