Planet Earth Gets a Ground Game

In a crowded field, no issue more spectacularly illustrates the failures of our political system than climate change. We are hurtling toward catastrophes that threaten the very existence of humankind, yet the matter is almost totally absent from political discourse. Donald Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address didn’t mention it. Neither did the official Democratic response. There are no fights being waged on climate policy in Congress; no government shutdowns based on it; no think pieces wondering whether Democrats should emphasize the environment over identity politics.

The reason for this is depressingly simple: polls show that the environment is a very low priority for most voters. And persuading them to care more is devilishly hard. Climate change is finely calibrated to thwart human psychology: the worst consequences—biblical flooding, widespread heat death, famine, unbreathable air—won’t be felt for decades, but avoiding them requires taking radical, society-altering actions right now. A stream of ever-more harrowing reports from scientists and journalists doesn’t seem to have jolted Americans out of their complacency, and we’re running out of time.

But what if persuasion is the wrong way of looking at it? What if the crux of the matter is not the people who don’t care enough, but the ones who already do?

In late 2013, a Democratic political operative named Nathaniel Stinnett noticed something odd about public opinion on the environment. Fresh off of managing a campaign to a painfully close loss in that year’s Boston mayoral election, Stinnett was looking over some polls that ranked political issues—the economy, national security, and so on—according to what percent of voters listed them as their highest priority. There were two rankings: one for all registered voters, and one for the subset who were likely to vote in the 2014 midterms.

As a seasoned campaign hand, Stinnett knew that politicians obsessively study opinion polls—but they care almost exclusively about likely voters. That’s why he was so struck by what he saw: the environment ranked much lower on the likely-voter poll, unlike other issues like immigration or abortion. That meant that people who listed it number one made up a smaller share of likely voters than of registered voters overall. They were, in other words, less likely than average to vote—up to 50 percent less likely, as Stinnett would later discover. He dug through other public opinion surveys and saw the same pattern. The stereotype of an environmentalist is someone deeply engaged in politics: the young Greenpeace volunteer gathering signatures on the sidewalk, the Birkenstock-wearing Baby Boomer who never misses a town hall meeting. But when it comes to voting, the stereotype is backward.

That may seem like yet another depressing data point. But to Stinnett, himself an environmentalist, it was actually great news, because it’s a lot easier to get someone to vote than to make them care about an Antarctic ice shelf. And it gave him an idea. If there were all these registered voters out there who already prioritized the environment, and simply weren’t voting, then the problem wasn’t really about persuasion; it was about turnout. The size of the gap between the two polls suggested that a potentially huge number of environmental voters, perhaps millions, were routinely sitting out elections. If he could find these people and get them to vote, Stinnett reasoned, they would start getting picked up in models of likely voters in future elections. The environment would climb higher in those likely-voter issue priority polls. Climb high enough, and politicians would start feeling that they can’t win without catering to environmentalists.