A new poll released this week suggests that voters in Colorado and other battleground states are ready to support bold action on climate, with overwhelming majorities of voters of nearly every stripe supporting an aggressive approach to a crisis that has been simmering for generations.
Climate activists and their allies believe it's a winning issue at the ballot box this year, and, perhaps more importantly, that the tide of public opinion has turned, making possible the kind of aggressive — and expensive — approach to greenhouse gas reduction that has previously appeared impossible.
And while the contrast between Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, his Democratic challenger, isn't as stark as it is in some Senate contests this year — Hickenlooper has a more moderate record on climate than some Democrats like, and Gardner isn't a climate-be-damned bogey-man — strategists on both side believe climate policy will play a big role in the state's crucial Senate race.
“The polling proves it: voters are sick of the GOP’s failed leadership in the face of the existential threat that is climate change. Coloradans are already living with droughts, wildfires, melting snowcaps, and heat waves that scientists say will only get more extreme in the coming years,” said Adrian Eng-Gastelum, a spokesman for the left-leaning Climate Power 2020, which commissioned the national poll released July 16.
The poll, conducted by Global Strategy Group, surveyed 3,249 voters with an over-sampling in presidential and Senate battleground states, found that 71% of respondents "favor bold government action on climate change," with just 19% opposed to it. The sample included 41% Republican-leaning voters, who increasingly consider climate policy as a deciding factor in their voting decisions, the pollsters said.
In addition, the poll found that voters — particularly young, Latino and self-described center-right voters — overwhelmingly support "bold" government action on climate change, with a Democrat who supports that kind of action winning over a Republican who doesn't by 24 percentage points, a substantially higher margin than the 10 percentage point lead for Democrats found in a generic ballot choice.
“Voters do in fact have green dreams and know what’s good when it comes to climate change, good jobs, and clean energy. Democrats would be wise to go big and bold on climate,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy for Democratic-aligned Data for Progress, in a statement.
The survey found that attacks against Democrats using the Green New Deal as a cudgel fall flat with voters, regardless of their ideology or political bent. While the Green New Deal has become a regular talking point in some political circles — Gardner accuses Hickenlooper of supporting the proposal, even though the Democrat was booed last year on the presidential campaign trail for telling Democrats he disagreed with the plan — among respondents, only 13% said they've heard much about it, and 46% say they're unsure how they feel about it.
"The data couldn’t be more clear: Democrats can and should lean into climate, go on the offense, and campaign aggressively on climate action," said Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power 2020, the poll's sponsor.
"And the bigger and bolder, the better. There is only bad news for Trump and Republicans in this poll. Their lies about hamburgers, windmills, energy bills and cars are falling flat, and turning voters toward candidates who actually have plans to address climate change.”
While Hickenlooper has been met with a lukewarm embrace by some climate activists who consider his record as governor mixed at best, three current and former lawmakers — including one who ran for the Senate nomination last year on a climate platform — threw their support behind the Democrat this week, saying Coloradans have the "opportunity to elect a proven climate leader to the U.S. Senate."
Hickenlooper, a former petroleum geologist who was viewed as too cozy with the oil and gas industry when he was governor — he'll never live down a video clip of him drinking "benign frack fluid" during 2013 testimony before Congress — has taken heat from fellow Democrats during the primary who claimed Hickenlooper's approach to climate policy was too measured.
The other Democrat who made the ballot, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, lashed Hickenlooper over the former governor's reaction of the Green New Deal, a complicated proposal that would reorder the entire U.S. economy on the way to zeroing out carbon emissions.
During a July 14 Zoom teleconference to announce their endorsement of Hickenlooper, former U.S. Senate candidate and House Majority Leader Alice Madden, former state Sen. Dan Grossman and state Sen. Chris Hansen held a sky's-the-limit discussion about the possibilities of a Biden administration and Democratic-controlled Senate taking "bold action" on climate change, pointing to Hickenlooper's record on the topic in Colorado.
“Senator Cory Gardner and President Trump are too preoccupied with pleasing the special interests and lobbyists who line their pockets and campaign coffers — and they’ve already proven that they won’t lift a finger to repair the environmental disaster they’ve caused," Madden said.
Madden, who worked on climate issues in the Obama administration, said the kind of swift, sweeping changes sparked by this summer's protests over longstanding, seemingly intractable issues surrounding criminal justice and racism suggest the country is ready to tackle climate change with the same gusto.
"If you work in climate change, you have to be an optimist or you wouldn't get out of bed in the morning," she said with a chuckle. "I believe the demands we're seeing on the streets can be translated to real change in the climate realm as well."
Unlike some of his colleagues in the Senate Republican caucus, however, Gardner isn't as easy to caricature as a climate bad guy. He doesn't reject climate science — not mincing words, Gardner has declared repeatedly over the years that he doesn't question whether human activity is causing climate change.
During a Senate subcommittee hearing he chaired just over a year ago, Gardner laid out his position: “I believe in climate change. I believe in the consensus within the scientific community. I believe humans are contributing to climate change, and I believe we have work to do together to solve it. Unfortunately climate change has become a partisan weapon used for more fighting than as a topic of serious discussion. In reality, there is unreasonableness on both far ends of the spectrum but much in the middle where we can agree.”
Gardner has been a consistent advocate for tax incentives for wind and solar energy providers. He's also stood in opposition to Republican attempts to reduce funding for research into emissions reduction and renewable energy.
When he ran his first campaign for the Senate in 2014, in a TV ad filmed at a wind farm, Gardner touted his support for renewable energy when he was a state legislator, including support for a carbon emission reduction proposal that helped push electrical utilities to retire coal plants and creation of the Colorado Clean Energy Development Authority.
Not good enough for most climate activists and leading environmental groups, who won't cut Gardner any slack for his moderate rhetoric or approach.
In this week's teleconference with Hickenlooper, Hansen called it a "false narrative" that greening the energy industry won't also boost the economy.
"We can clean up our emissions at the same time as growing our economy, and Colorado is proving it," he said.