Climate is on the ballot, and could sway outcomes in 2024 elections

If Donald Trump hadn’t dismissed climate change concerns in 2020, he’d likely still be president.

That’s what researchers at University of Colorado Boulder found this month after studying how public opinion on climate change has affected the past two presidential elections.

The finding is surprising since polls show global warming is still rarely the top issue on voters’ minds as they head to the ballot box, with the economy, healthcare, crime and immigration taking precedence. But head researcher Matthew Burgess noted a growing majority of Americans — including most independents and a swath of Republicans — now accept the science on climate and see that it’s starting to sway other “kitchen table” issues they care about, such as the economy and public health.

Perhaps voters also are now using a candidate’s position on climate change as a litmus test of sorts, Burgess said. In the view of people who accept climate science, politicians who deny it either don’t see the clear writing on the wall regarding how global warming is affecting our planet, which Burgess said could make those voters question their judgment on other issues, or they’re pretending to reject the science to cater to conservatives, which could make some voters question their integrity.

Either way, barring an unexpected turn such as Trump changing his tune on global warming, Burgess expects the issue to play an even more pivotal role in boosting votes for President Joe Biden — and potentially other Democrats — this year. If those races are fairly close, he said the climate issue alone could swing results again in Democrats’ favor.

Whether it’s one issue to consider when weighing various candidates or the issue on the table in state and local ballot measures, climate change will be up for a vote in California this year like never before.

And the results of those votes could show just how committed voters are to going green, including whether we’re willing to put our hard-earned money where our planet-loving mouths are.

Candidates and climate

The future of major climate projects, which have received unprecedented funding under the Biden administration, is at stake for starters. If Trump retakes the White House, he’s promised to roll back funding and regulations that promote renewable energy while boosting the oil, gas and coal industries. And many GOP candidates have promised to do the same if they take control of Congress.

Some Southern California Democrats, instead, are banking on government plans to tackle global warming being an increasingly important issue to their voters.

The re-election campaign for Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes, D-Riverside, recently sent a text message focused solely on her work to “combat climate change, improve local air quality, and protect our environment” and touting the fact that she received a score of 100% from the Sierra Club. And climate policies are among just a handful of issues highlighted in the latest TV ads for Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine, who’s locked in a competitive race for U.S. Senate.

That’s a winning strategy with the segment of young voters who are most likely to cast ballots, according to a December report from CIRCLE, which researches youth civic engagement at Boston’s Tufts University.

Bucking conventional wisdom about their low election participation, CIRCLE data shows young people have been voting at higher and higher numbers in recent elections. Half of young people 18 to 29 voted in the 2020 presidential election, the organization estimates, which represents an 11-point jump from youth turnout in 2016. And Sara Suzuki, a senior researcher at CIRCLE, is optimistic that youth turnout will be even higher this year, with 57% of voters 18 to 34 saying in a November poll that they’re “extremely likely” to vote.

That’s good news for candidates who support climate action, since young voters are the most likely to prioritize climate change at the ballot box. The latest CIRCLE poll shows climate change tied with gun violence, behind only economic issues, as being top of mind for voters 18 to 34 headed into this election. And the organization’s December report shows voters passionate about climate change are the most likely to vote, with a 20-point lead in turnout over groups most concerned about other issues. That’s why the organization predicts: “Young people who are focused on climate have the potential to make an outsized impact in the 2024 presidential election.”

To help California voters know which candidates support climate change issues and aren’t among the more than half of legislators who take money from oil companies, the organization California Environmental Voters launched a platform called Give Green California. It functions similarly to the Act Blue platform for Democrats, but with a climate focus. Voters can go to the Give Green California website to donate to dozens of candidates who’ve been vetted by California Environmental Voters, with optional filters by geographic area, candidate gender and more. (So far only Democrats have made the cut, though the platform is open to all candidates.) That money then goes directly to the candidate’s campaign, with a notation that it came through Give Green California.

The idea is to give climate-minded voters a user-friendly way to know who to support, according to Mary Creasman, head of the California Environmental Voters Education Fund.

“We know a majority of people in our state want government leaders to reject corporate polluter dollars and lean in on these solutions,” Creasman said. So she hopes Give Green California can help “build collective power” around those expectations and drive more lawmakers to embrace them going forward.

Ballot measures tackle climate too

California voters will have at least one — and potentially several — chances to weigh in directly on climate change via a slew of related ballot measures.

First up is a referendum backed by fossil fuel companies. They want voters to reverse a bill lawmakers passed in 2022, citing public health and safety concerns, that banned new oil drilling or major retrofits to existing wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, nursing homes or hospitals. Senate Bill 1137 from Sen. Lena Gonzalez, D-Long Beach, was supposed to kick in at the start of 2023, but oil companies got enough signatures to get the question on the Nov. 5 ballot, which suspended the law until the vote takes place.

A coalition of environment, public health and community groups called the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy California then filed a ballot measure of their own that would have asked voters to enshrine the 3,200 buffer zone for oil wells. But after lawmakers in the fall approved a bill reforming the state’s referendum process, including requiring clearer language on confusing measures such as this, the coalition decided to focus its resources on defeating the oil company’s referendum.

Those efforts recently got a big boost when outdoor gear company Patagonia donated $500,000 to the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy California. The coalition has now raised some $2.3 million — with other big donations from former Google executive Eric Schmidt and the Center for Biological Diversity — to help convince voters to check “keep the law” on their November ballots to keep the oil well buffer zone law intact.

They have a formidable opponent in the oil companies. A fund created to help overturn the law already raised and largely spent more than $20 million to get the referendum on the ballot, with the biggest donations coming from oil companies and industry trade groups.

The Campaign for a Safe and Healthy California raised alarms about another $11 million that oil companies have funneled to three nonprofits, which have been running ads railing against efforts to scale back oil production in California. The ads — which have run on TV, in mailers and across social media — don’t mention the ballot measure, and representatives for the organizations denied the connection to Politico. That means the efforts aren’t subject to campaign finance laws, such as a requirement to disclose donors. So the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy California is characterizing it as a “dark money” effort by major oil companies aimed at priming voters to support overturning the oil well buffer zone.

Southern California lawmakers are still trying to get more climate-related measures on the November ballot.

Several versions of a bond measure — which would ask voters to greenlight using taxpayer money on efforts to slow climate change and buffer communities from its effects — are making their way through the legislature.

The Senate passed a bill from Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, that calls for a $15.5 billion climate bond to go on the ballot, while the Assembly passed one from Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, that calls for a $16 billion bond. Both need to pass the other chamber and get signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom (who’s suggested he supports the idea as a way to make up for state budget cuts on climate spending) to appear on the November ballot.

And on Thursday, Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, D-Los Angeles introduced a so-called Green Amendment, which would amend the California Constitution to declare ‘people have a right to clean air and water and a healthy environment.” Several other states, including Montana and New York, have passed similar amendments in recent years. Since the bill involves changing the state constitution, it would have to go on the November ballot if lawmakers pass Bryan’s bill and Newsom signs it.

Los Angeles residents will also see a measure on the March 5 primary ballot that touches on climate change. Supporters say the Healthy Streets LA initiative could make roads safer for walking and biking, and smoother for public transportation, by requiring the city to address those issues anytime they make improvements to 660 feet or more of local roadway.

More climate-related local measures could be added to ballots for the general election, with the deadline to submit those measures still several months out.

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