from The Water's Edge

Campaign 2016 Friday Foreign Policy Roundup: The Public’s Mixed Message on Climate Change

A woman walks past a map showing the elevation of the sea in the last 22 years during the 2015 World Climate Change Conference. (Stephane Mahe/Courtesy Reuters)

January 8, 2016

A woman walks past a map showing the elevation of the sea in the last 22 years during the 2015 World Climate Change Conference. (Stephane Mahe/Courtesy Reuters)
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President Obama is set to deliver his final State of the Union address Tuesday night at 9 p.m. Climate change will be one of the featured topics in what the White House says will be a “non-traditional” speech that discusses broad themes rather than offers a laundry list of topics. When the speech turns to climate change, odds are good that Obama will tout last month’s Paris Climate Accord as a major accomplishment on his watch. However important the Paris deal may be, Obama has accomplished far less on the climate front during his presidency than he likely expected seven years ago when in his first State of the Union address he called for comprehensive climate legislation. A poll out from Monmouth University this week provides insight into why that has been the case.

Monmouth asked people whether they think the climate is changing. Seven out of ten Americans say they do. As the chart below shows, the differences among people based on age, education, and where they live are relatively small; none is greater than fourteen percentage points. The big differences fall along party lines, with thirty-six percentage points separating Democrats and Republicans (85 percent versus 49 percent). Independents (74 percent) are much closer to Democrats than to Republicans on this score. Point number one: It’s hard to move on a problem when a large segment of the public doubts it exists.

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When asked to say how serious the climate change problem is, the numbers change substantially. Despite mounting scientific evidence that the climate is changing and that the results could be catastrophic, just 41 percent of Americans rate climate change as a very serious problem. Once again, positions vary substantially by partisan affiliation. More than three in five Democrats think that climate change poses a serious problem, but fewer than one in five Republicans do. Independents fall midway between the two. Point number two: It’s even harder to get things done when many of the people who see a problem doubt it’s a significant one.

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Is there any good news in the Monmouth poll? Well, while most Americans don’t share the view Obama expressed in last year’s State of the Union address that “no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change,” they don’t oppose taking at least some action to combat it. Indeed, nearly two in three say they want the U.S. government to do more to reduce activities that cause climate change. Yes, this poll question should be taken with a grain of salt—it doesn’t specify which actions or how much they might cost, details that could greatly influence how people respond. Nonetheless, the response suggests neither President Obama, nor any politician who follows his lead in urging action on climate change, is necessarily out of step with the public. In contrast, the GOP presidential candidates who oppose combatting climate change—and that is most of them—are more politically out of step, at least when it comes to the public as a whole.

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Will Obama’s speech do much to move public opinion on climate change? Probably not. For all the talk of the presidential bully pulpit, the record of presidents using speeches to change opinion is pretty poor. Change in public attitudes is more likely to come about because of events—actual crises tend to spur action far better than future ones. Change in public attitudes may also come with the passage of time—as the Monmouth poll shows, younger Americans are far more likely to believe that climate change exists, poses a serious problem, and requires government action. Of course, by the time the aging of the U.S. population creates the political basis for government action it may be the case of too little, too late rather than too much, too soon.

In Case You Missed It

Marco Rubio explained why he believes President Obama “has deliberately weakened America.” Rubio also seized on the news of North Korea’s alleged hydrogen bomb test to say that he has long warned “that North Korea is run by a lunatic” and to list the four things he would do in response. Donald Trump thinks “we should put pressure on China to solve the problem” of North Korea. Ted Cruz said that the North Korea nuclear test provided grim evidence of the need to “tear up” the Iran nuclear deal. Rand Paul said he would use Arab rather American troops on the ground to defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State. He also argued that Hillary Clinton is “the most likely candidate to take us back to war.”

On the ad front, Cruz released a new video, “Invasion.” It features business professionals crossing a shallow river to tout his commitment to securing America’s borders. Rubio released a new ad as well, “Safe.” In it, he lists his complaints about Obama’s foreign policy and says that “America needs a real commander in chief.”

George Pataki abandoned his long-shot bid to win the GOP nomination. The GOP field is now down to an even dozen candidates.

Politico offers “Hillary’s North Korea problem” and “Cruz and Rubio collide over foreign policy.” The New York Times discusses why the threat of “boots on the ground” may be just a figure of speech. The Washington Post explains “how Ted Cruz differs from Donald Trump on immigration,” and details a war of words between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump on climate change.

Looking Ahead

The Republican candidates will meet in South Carolina next Thursday, January 14, for the latest round of GOP debates. Fox Business Network will broadcast the event, which will be held at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center. In keeping with Campaign 2016 tradition, there will be two debates, an undercard debate featuring the candidates lagging in the polls and then the main debate featuring the candidates topping the polls. The undercard debate will start at 6 p.m. (EST). Trish Regan and Sandra Smith will moderate. The prime-time debate starts at 9 p.m. (EST), and Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo will debate. The Lou Dobbs Tonight show will reveal on Monday night, January 11, which candidates have qualified for prime-time stage. The next Democratic debate will be on January 17. (If you are looking to plan your schedule for the remainder of the primary season, Vox offers a complete 2016 debate schedule.) 

We are just twenty-four days away from the Iowa caucuses, which means we are thirty-two days away from the New Hampshire primary. Those of you longing for Election Day have 305 days to wait.

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