With vote counting in Tuesday’s U.S. presidential election not nearly complete, climate campaigners were clear about two key points: that every ballot must be tallied before anyone tries to tweet or more officially call the outcome, and that wherever this chapter of the story ends, a massive amount of work was ahead to build a just, green recovery and pull the country back into the Paris Agreement.
In the week leading up to Election Day, observers and analysts had speculated widely about a possible landslide victory for Democratic candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, with their party claiming as many as 54 or 55 seats in the U.S. Senate—a crucial power shift that would have made it far easier for a Biden White House to deliver on its policy agenda. By the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Biden-Harris had multiple paths to the 270 electoral college votes they needed to win the White House, but electoral-vote.com said Trump was on track to win more votes across the country than he did in 2016.
“Trump’s tweet about being cheated has already been slapped with a disclaimer by Twitter,” electoral-vote wrote at 1:05 AM Eastern. However, Democratic pundit Van Jones “talked about two victories the Democrats wanted: A political victory and a moral victory,” the site added about 45 minutes later. “They may yet get the political victory, but a repudiation of Donald Trump they will not get.”
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With the important caveat that there were millions of votes to be counted across key states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, and Pennsylvania—and that Biden only needed to win two of those four to prevent a second Trump term—the Tuesday night results contrasted with earlier reports of massive voter turnout and enthusiasm in population groups that had been expected to strongly support the Democratic ticket. But even then, those news stories contained notes of caution about a byzantine electoral system that could work to the disadvantage of candidates with strong, serious climate policies.
“On the eve of the election, some climate and environmental justice advocates were heartened by polls showing that Democrat Joe Biden, who has pledged an ambitious US$2-trillion clean energy transformation, has succeeded in building a broad moderate-to-left coalition behind his candidacy,” InsideClimate News wrote yesterday. “But it remained uncertain whether it was big enough to overcome the built-in advantage the Electoral College gives to President Donald Trump, who has indicated his intent to further cement his fossil fuel-centric policy into place.”
And even with a win, “there was broad agreement among climate activists that a Biden victory would not be the end of their battle, but a chance for a new beginning, with much work to do,” InsideClimate added.
“Honestly, the election is one step along the way,” said University of Utah climate scientist Logan Mitchell.
US Climate Action Network Executive Director Keya Chatterjee stressed that point in a statement issued just after midnight Wednesday. “While we do not know the results of the U.S. election yet, THAT’S OK because we want every vote counted correctly,” she said. “The will of the people must be heard and we will not let Trump steal this election.”
And “the will of the people is clear on climate,” Chatterjee added. “We are experiencing the impacts of a dirty energy economy: the extraction and burning of fossil fuels and other natural resources. The communities that have done the least to contribute to the climate crisis are hit the hardest,” and “we will only accept just and equitable solutions that will transform our society to one that protects our communities, especially those who have been made vulnerable due to racial injustice, or their religion, class, age, gender, place, and/or ability.”
Chatterjee noted that, at Trump’s behest, today is the day the U.S. formally exits the 2015 Paris Agreement, becoming “the only nation in the world to sit on the sidelines. But we won’t be giving up and we have the will of the people behind us. We know we have a responsibility to rejoin the Agreement and to increase our climate commitment.”
Leading into Election Day, much of the climate news coverage focused on polls that showed increasing voter concern about the climate crisis, but with a continuing partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans. Other stories looked at the local effects of climate change in different parts of the country, with campaigners and some candidates deliberately homing in on the on-the-ground practicalities of climate impacts more than big-picture policies.
The New York Times recalled a mid-October Times/Siena College poll that found 58% of Americans who were very or somewhat concerned that climate change is harming their communities, compared to 39% who were not. “But that poll also found a stark partisan split,” with 90% of Biden voters but only 23% of Trump supporters expressing concern about the crisis in their midst. Across demographic groups, climate concern was highest among Black survey respondents, at 84%, and 18- to 29-year-olds, at 72%.
The Times also cited a separate study by Stanford University, Resources for the Future, and ReconMR that found the “issue public” for climate change—people who had concluded the issue was extremely important to them personally—had hit 25% this year, an all-time high.
“That’s a big deal, because these are the people who write letters to lawmakers, donate to lobbying groups ,or vote based on the issue,” said Stanford professor Jon Krosnick, who’s been polling on climate change polling for more than 20 years. “That rise has come in the last few years, and I’ve never seen that magnitude of change on any issue.”
But the partisan splits at the national level still translated in places that were considered key swing states going into the election. Times/Siena found 58% of all voters, 90% of Biden supporters, and 22% of Trump voters concerned about their own community being harmed by climate change. “In Arizona, which endured a series of deadly, record-breaking heat waves in July and August, 57% of likely voters said they were very or somewhat worried that rising temperatures from global warming would have a significant effect on their life,” including 90% of Biden backers and 22% of Trump voters. In Florida, 54% across the board, 84% of Biden supporters, and 22% of Trump voters were worried about sea level rise.
In Pennsylvania, a state heavily dependent on oil and gas fracking, 52% said they supported the climate-busting process, while 27% opposed it. Supporters were predominantly male and broke overwhelmingly for Trump in their voting intentions. Late campaign polling in the state showed Biden with a six-point lead, but the outcome was still unknown Wednesday morning, with many votes still to be counted.
InsideClimate News has snapshots of key climate-related issues playing out in different parts of the country—including environmental justice and toxic coal ash pollution in Wayne County, North Carolina, sea level rise in Imperial Beach, California, air quality in Salt Lake City, Utah, water rights for the Navajo Nation in Arizona, environmental justice in Houston, Detroit, and Harlan County, Kentucky, and the vulnerability of Missouri farm communities to drought, wildfires, floods, and superstorms.
Grist wrote about young candidates bringing climate into election battles in Oregon, Florida, and Michigan, largely by addressing local impacts in states that skewed heavily Republican.