Talking climate: How climate change is appearing in the midterm elections in N.H.
NHPR has been asking voters what’s top of mind this election season. For many, climate change came up as a top concern for respondents.
“I find climate change to be the most important issue facing us as people. When I listen to election events and speeches and news reports, I'm always looking for, well, what are they saying about climate change? Politically, that's been one of the problems... Our politics has gotten in the way of addressing this."Chuck Rhoades, Dover, NH
But on the campaign trail, climate issues have been relatively absent from speeches, ads and debates as candidates make their final pitches to voters.
With inflation at a 40-year high and the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, candidates have focused on the economy and abortion, leaving climate in the margins, said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.
“This is the first election in a very long time in which inflation has been the central issue,” he said. “When you have an issue like inflation, the cost of living, the economy — other issues get shunted aside.”
It takes resources and time to bring issues to the front of voters’ minds, Scala said, and candidates have made the calculation that it isn’t worthwhile when it comes to climate change.
Slow changes in political messaging
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change points out that the world currently has the tools it needs to fight climate change. But though the technology and science have changed quickly, Scala says, the politics haven’t.
“I think politicians are struggling to catch up,” he said. “They haven't figured out how to discuss it with the public in a politically advantageous way.”
The doom and gloom that accompanies many discussions about climate change may contribute to the issue. Scala said he sees climate change often connected with austerity politics, or discussions about dire scenarios for the future, which may be less compelling to voters.
The timeline of climate action, particularly when it comes to the energy transition, is also a sticking point, according to Scala.
Voters in New Hampshire are faced with spiking energy costs in the present, which have been the catalyst for the conversations that have happened among candidates about climate change this election season.
In scenarios modeled by advocates and researchers, electrifying our energy system and using more renewables show promise for lowering costs. And in some places, like Maine, adding more renewable generation has already helped drive down electric rates.
But the energy transition will take some time. A major buildout of offshore wind in the Northeast, for example, is probably years out – a research array of turbines in the Gulf of Maine isn’t expected to be in the water for about 5 years.
The pressures of current prices and the long-term nature of climate planning leaves politicians – especially Democrats, trying to find ways to talk about the Inflation Reduction Act and its climate provisions– feeling stuck in old conversations, Scala said.
“We’ve heard about Big Oil, it feels to me, for decades,” he said.
On the other side of the aisle, some New Hampshire Republicans have shifted away from denial of climate science and are expressing openness to climate action. But, Scala says, that party is also somewhat stuck on minimizing the issue or focusing on fossil fuels as an energy independence issue.
“The rhetoric just seems to be old and cliched and wrung out,” Scala said.
Granite Staters and climate opinions
Meanwhile, residents in New Hampshire are increasingly thinking about climate change as an important issue, said Lawrence Hamilton, a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire.
His public opinion research shows more than 60% of people in New Hampshire believe that humans are changing the climate.
Other research from Yale from a statistical model based on national data shows similar numbers, with higher rates of positive responses for some questions about whether leaders should make particular climate policies, like funding research into renewable energy sources.
But, Hamilton says, public opinion doesn’t always translate to climate-driven votes.
“The people who are most concerned about climate change are, logically enough, the people who are going to confront its worst problems in the future in their lifetimes,” he said. “But that's also a group that has somewhat lower voting participation.”
Additionally, Hamilton’s research suggests that instead of forming opinions about climate change based on physical reality – seeing winters in New England warming, ski seasons getting shorter, and more rain in the cold months, for example – people do the opposite.
“What it seemed like in a lot of our surveys was that people had these strong preconceptions about climate change and that affects their perceptions of physical reality,” he said. “So your socio-political identity can affect whether or not you notice that the winters are warming.”
Political leaders play an important role in addressing climate climate change, says Rob Werner, the state director for the League of Conservation Voters in New Hampshire, so it matters how they talk about it.
“The market and private investment is making, and have already made the bet around where we're going generally,” he said. “A better alignment of policy and what's going on in the market I think is a much more desirous situation and it's going to make the transition go faster and help more people.”
Scala says there can still be lasting policy outcomes from issues politicians don’t see as compelling to campaign on, comparing the Inflation Reduction Act to Obamacare.
“That wasn't a good issue for Democrats to run on during the Obama administration. And yet that's a policy achievement that has stood the test of time and that Republicans have largely reconciled themselves with at this point,” he said.
But, he says, the way politicians speak about climate change could make a big difference, for something as transformative as an energy transition.
“Thinking bigger and politicians speaking bigger about energy abundance and energy change may well be in order,” he said.