As any number of activists and journalists — nearly all of them on the left — have noted, the two major party presidential candidates aren’t talking much about climate change. As someone on the right who is concerned about climate change and its likely costs, I actually would have preferred more talk about the issue myself. But I also totally why the candidates didn’t talk about climate change: it isn’t a very important issue to the public now and probably won’t be in the near future. This isn’t a cause for inaction but, rather, a reason to simply be realistic about what is — and isn’t — going to be a high salience issue.

The polling results are clear. Climate change and closely related issues like energy use simply aren’t at the top of anyone’s agenda. In fact, even if one adds together every energy/climate/environment related issue on Gallup’s long-running “most important issue” poll, the total has never exceeded five percent. As is typical in tough economic times, furthermore, a plurality of Americans believe that environmental regulation should take a backseat to jobs and growth. (The dichotomy may be false here; good environmental policy can help the economy.) While between 30 and 40 percent of voters do say they are worried about the environment, global warming is not on the top of anyone’s list of environmental concerns and never has been.

And, interestingly, public opinion does seem a lot more sober than some of the more fevered corners of both the left and the right. For example, Americans, by a small margin, identify toxic waste as the single biggest environmental problem. Interestingly, that’s the place where almost all analysts would agree that the big federal law (popularly known as “Superfund” ) hasn’t worked. On the other hand, generally effective clean air and clean water laws have correlated with an understandable decline in the number of people seriously worried about air and water quality.

It is not that people think climate change is a hoax or that some massive right-wing conspiracy has deluded the public. Indeed, both presidential candidates have repeatedly, in public, said that it’s real. In any case, I don’t honestly know anybody — not even my former colleagues at The Heartland Institute — who denies that the Earth has warmed somewhat in recent years and that human activity has some responsibility for this happening.

But, ultimately, the consequences (as with the future consequences of anything) aren’t knowable in any great detail. Even as essentially all climate scientists have come around to the idea that climate change is real and likely to be a problem in the future, a number have also backed away from extreme alarmist predictions that climate change would make the Earth uninhabitable.

The policy courses this suggests are twofold. First, politicians shouldn’t be expected to speak a great deal about an issue that doesn’t show up as being important to voters. Other issues like alcohol consumption (between the 1880s and early 1930s) and crime (between the 1960s and early 1990s) have also been more important in past electoral campaigns than they are today. It doesn’t mean that they’re irrelevant, but rather, that people just care more about other things.

If they favor action on climate change, activists should look for ways to connect climate issues to other matters of public interest. Obviously, some of these connections can be made to other environmental issues, but it’s also worthwhile to explore policies that have the benefit of addressing climate concerns while also tackling more pressing concerns. For instance, we should limit subsidies for coastal development and lift state price controls on property insurance anyway. That those policies would also help the public better prepare for the possibility of rising ocean levels or more volatile weather is a bonus.

These strategies may not please everyone on the left wing of the political spectrum. But they’re the most effective ways to confront what’s likely to remain a low salience issue.

Featured Publications