Current Views of Climate Change: the general public versus top presidential candidates

I crossed the country last weekend to participate in the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC. It’s the biggest general science meeting of the year in the U.S., and I was excited to attend along with thousands of other scientists, science writers, science policy experts, and educators. I darted from session to session to see as many interesting sessions and talks that I could, including ones about gravitational waves (of course!), science in Iran, communicating science with humor, and grand visions of the future of science—presented by the heads of NASA and the National Science Foundation, among others.

But I’d like to share some other findings presented at the AAAS meeting, about public opinion on science and technology issues. Cary Funk of the Pew Research Center warned that journalists should not oversimplify the state of affairs. “There are a mix of factors underlying public attitudes toward science-related topics,” she said.

What do people think?

Based on Pew and Gallup surveys, it seems that people’s views on climate change vary with political ideology or party affiliation, with age, and to some extent with geographic location. Their views don’t seem to vary as much with gender, race, religion or education level.

Latin America and Africa are more concerned about climate change than the U.S. and China. (Credit: Pew Research Center.)

Latin America and Africa are more concerned about climate change than the U.S. and China. (Credit: Pew Research Center.)

It turns out that views of climate change are different around the world. In particular, Latin Americans and Africans, more than people elsewhere, think that climate change is a very serious problem and that it’s harming people now, and they’re more concerned that climate change will harm them personally. In contrast, people from the U.S. and China—the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters—expressed much less concern.

“Overall, people in countries with high levels of carbon dioxide emissions per capita tend to express less anxiety about climate change than those in nations with lower per-capita emissions,” the 2015 Pew report said.

The political divide has nearly doubled in the last 15 years for people who “worry a great deal or fair amount about global warming.” (Credit: Gallup, Inc.)

The political divide has nearly doubled in the last 15 years for people who “worry a great deal or fair amount about global warming.” (Credit: Gallup, Inc.)

This probably won’t surprise you, but Lydia Saad and her fellow researchers at Gallup see a huge political divide among those who identify as “Republican” and “Democrat” when it comes to: how much people worry about global warming; whether they consider global warming a serious threat; believe the effects of global warming are already occurring; believe that there is a scientific consensus; and believe that global warming is caused by human activity.

The chasm widened after 2008—when President Obama took office—in spite of the fact that the Obama administration did almost nothing to address climate change until two years ago. (Saad didn’t say that; that’s me editorializing.)

The political gap has also widened for people who "think scientists believe global warming is occurring." (Credit: Gallup, Inc.)

The political gap has also widened for people who “think scientists believe global warming is occurring.” (Credit: Gallup, Inc.)

The 2015 Pew survey finds the people have similar political differences on: fracking, prioritizing wind and solar energy over fossil fuels, offshore drilling, and regulating power plant emissions.

And here’s the kicker: during an election year and following the warmest January on record, climate change currently ranks only #14 on the list of voters’ priorities, according to a Gallup poll this month. (The economy, jobs, and national security topped the list.) Nearly half of people surveyed considered climate change extremely or very important in their vote for president though, so we should still ask what the top presidential candidates have to say about these issues.

What do the presidential candidates think?

Now that the relentless, ceaseless, interminable, monotonous and tedious political campaign nears its end—with nine months to go before it gives birth to a fledgling president—it seems to be a good time to review the candidates’ positions on important issues relevant to science, especially climate change and energy policy. This takes on extra importance now, as the Supreme Court has complicated or delayed efforts to implement the Clean Power Plan. Depending on who replaces Scalia, completing this plan and building on it may be the charge of Obama’s successor.

I’ve ordered these candidates alphabetically by party and then by last name.

Hillary Clinton (Democrat, former Senator and Secretary of State)

Clinton says that she will expand clean energy, especially solar; create clean energy jobs; improve energy efficiency in homes and other buildings; increase fuel efficiency of cars and trucks; and since last fall she has expressed opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. (She had not taken a position one way or the other before that.) Clinton also has a $30 billion plan to “revitalize coal communities” and help them transition toward an economy based on cleaner energy sources.

She has a modest goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. Note that, like Obama, Clinton has changed the goalposts, as they say, from the standard baseline: relative to 1990 emissions, this would amount to a reduction of less than 4%, which is tiny compared to plans proposed by European countries and Russia.

Bernie Sanders (Democrat, Senator)

Like Clinton, Sanders supports improving energy efficiency in buildings, electricity grids and cars; investing in renewable energies—especially solar and wind; and aims to create many green jobs. In contrast with Clinton, he opposes fracking and offshore drilling. He recently (in December) released a climate action plan, in which he advocates for a carbon tax and for steeper carbon emission cuts by 2030.

Dr. Jill Stein (Green, Physician)

Stein also has an ambitious climate action plan, and her stance on many energy and climate issues is similar to Sanders’s. Her plan includes a “Green New Deal” to promote the creation millions of green living-wage jobs by investing in clean energy infrastructure, public transit, and more sustainable agriculture. But unique among all the candidates, she aims to achieve 100% clean energy for the U.S. by 2030.

Gary Johnson (Libertarian, former Governor of New Mexico)

Johnson, a leading Libertarian candidate, does not appear to have a climate plan or a detailed energy policy. He accepts that climate change is human-caused. He favors natural gas and to some extent coal power plants, and he emphasizes a free-market approach and opposes cap-and-trade systems.

Ted Cruz (Republican, Senator)

Cruz, like all of the leading Republican candidates but unlike candidates from any other party, does not believe that climate change is happening. He opposes “climate change alarmism.” He is the chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, and he believes that there is no consensus among scientists about climate change. Cruz supports fracking, the Keystone pipeline, and increasing offshore drilling.

Marco Rubio (Republican, Senator)

Rubio’s positions appear to be similar to Cruz’s. It’s not clear to me whether he believes climate change is occurring, but he has clearly stated that it is not human-caused. Like Cruz, he supports fracking, the Keystone pipeline, and increasing offshore drilling, and he opposes cap-and-trade programs.

Donald Trump (Republican, Businessman)

Trump does not have a climate or energy policy. He believes that climate change is not happening; it’s just the weather.

News from Monterey: Low Water Levels, Fracking Debates

Here’s a couple new stories I reported on and wrote for the Monterey Herald newspaper over the past couple weeks:


Water levels on the rise, but slowly in Monterey County

As Northern California was pelted with rain to start the new year, there seemed to be reason to celebrate as the critically low levels at some lakes and reservoirs rose quickly.

Lake Shasta went up by half since the beginning of winter, to 46 percent of capacity. Folsom Lake, east of Sacramento, rose 44 feet in just over a month, and Lake Oroville rose 20 feet, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

A fishing boat motors across Lake Nacimiento in San Luis Obispo County on Tuesday, January 26, 2016.  The recent rains have raised the water level to 22% of capacity.  (Vern Fisher - Monterey Herald)

A fishing boat motors across Lake Nacimiento in San Luis Obispo County on Tuesday, January 26, 2016. The recent rains have raised the water level to 22% of capacity. (Vern Fisher – Monterey Herald)

But that wasn’t the case everywhere, including the two Southern Monterey County lakes, Nacimiento and San Antonio, key bodies of water in recharging Salinas Valley aquifers.

As with all lakes and reservoirs throughout the state affected by years of drought, water levels at Nacimiento and San Antonio had become dire. Last summer, Lake San Antonio dramatically dropped to 3 percent of capacity and recreational facilities there were closed.

Last month, Lake Nacimiento stored water at only 16 to 17 percent of capacity. It has now risen to 22 percent.

“Most of the gains came from the last couple rain events over the past week,” said German Criollo, a hydrologist with the Monterey County Water Resources Agency.

Lake San Antonio, on the other hand, currently remains at 3 percent of capacity. This is so low that engineers refer to it as a “dead pool”: gravity cannot pull any water out of the reservoir when it is at such levels…

[For more, check out the entire story in the Monterey Herald, published on 26 Jan. 2016.]


Fracking: Environmental group startled by pro-oil production radio/TV campaign

While Robert Frischmuth tuned in to the Democratic debate a few weeks back, he was startled to see a new commercial promoting oil and natural gas development in Monterey County. It turned out to be part of a TV and radio ad campaign, which promises economic benefits and thousands of jobs for the region.

Oil fields near San Ardo in southern Monterey County. (Vern Fisher - Monterey Herald)

Oil fields near San Ardo in southern Monterey County. (Vern Fisher – Monterey Herald)

Frischmuth is a member of Protect Monterey County, a local nonprofit group that focuses on environmental issues. He and his colleagues believe the campaign comes in response to a ballot initiative they are preparing for the November election.

“We think it’s unprecedented that the oil companies would spend so lavishly on advertising when the initiative isn’t even drafted yet,” said Mary Hsia-Coron, another member of the group.

Californians for Energy Independence is credited on the video for sponsoring the ad. Its coalition includes Chevron Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp., Occidental Petroleum Corp., and other oil and gas corporations.

“We’re supporting local energy production,” said Karen Hanretty, spokeswoman for Californians for Energy Independence. “These folks in Monterey would like to ban oil production in California, but that would be terrible for the state and terrible for the county.”

The ballot measure would likely support a ban on fracking, not all forms of oil well stimulation techniques…

[For more, check out the entire story in the Monterey Herald, published on 3 Feb. 2016. As usual, thanks to David Kellogg for help editing it.]

Book Review: “Trace” by Lauret Savoy

As I work on improving my essay writing skills, I’ve attempted to expand my horizons and read a wide variety of authors, including those with whom I’m not familiar. I recently came across Lauret Savoy, who in her new book, Trace, offers us a different perspective of nature, the environment, geography and American history, including its evolving race relations. She focuses on how people and communities interact with nature, which shouldn’t be viewed as some pristine thing that white people enjoy every once in a while.


Her writings dovetail with environmental justice, which is something I’ve been thinking about over the past few years. It refers to the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income” (as the EPA defines it) with respect to environmental regulations and policies. In my opinion, people whose work or activism involves race, class, gender and other power relations often ignore environmental issues, while environmentalists are often white and operate in a vacuum as if those other divisions aren’t important.

But environmental justice brings these issues together. It grew out of the civil rights movement when people of color realized they were often suffering silently while disproportionately affected by toxic waste sites, power plants, landfills, and other environmental hazards. In one of my first guest blog posts (outside of this blog), for the Union of Concerned Scientists a couple years ago, I argued that climate change is an environmental justice issue, as the people most harmed by rising sea levels, floods, extreme droughts and heatwaves are those who did the least to contribute to the problem. Savoy considers these kinds of issues as she weaves in environmental justice in her new book, referring to “people of color and the economically poor [who] live, and die, next to degraded environments.” She argues that the concept of “ecological footprint” should account for dispossessed people and people’s labor.

In Trace, a slim yet powerful volume, Savoy invites us to accompany her as she traces through her travels, her past, and her family history, following the paths she and her predecessors have taken. She explores varied and uneven terrain through ever changing and troubled relations between race and the American landscape. The book is sort of a collection of interconnected essays, which fit together into a cohesive story. Each chapter searches a particular place, asks questions about its origins and names, and considers her and others’ experiences there. “The American landscape was in some ways the template, but also the trigger, to each of the searches,” she said in an interview about the book.

Savoy is a professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She identifies as a woman of African American, Euro-American, and Native American heritage. During her childhood, she lived in California and journeyed to Arizona, through Mexican borderlands, and across the continental divide, and she takes us through each of these places. Early in the book, she tells a story about how as a 7-year-old girl at a gift shop at the north rim of the Grand Canyon, she tried to purchase some postcards displaying photos of places she liked. But the woman behind the counter wouldn’t sell them to her, and she runs off into the woods. It’s one of her first experiences of racism.

In another chapter, she analyzes a book she clearly loves, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Leopold enlarged the boundaries of “community” to include “soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land,” but she fears that the “we” in his book excludes her. She then recalls a novel her father wrote as a young man, called Alien Land, and this leads her to consider the chasms evident in an “alien land ethic.”

Savoy’s extensive background in the earth sciences comes through in beautifully written passages such as this one about stones lying on an island beach: “…each cobble a relic of a remote past and a piece of and in this present. These fragments of placed-memory could trace, to the geologist’s eye, a continent’s coming of age as it shifted and rifted in a tectonic-plated world. They also pointed north toward ghosts of ice sheets grinding across the shield.”

While exploring Trace and Savoy’s other writings, I encountered an excellently written essay by Catherine Buni in the LA Review of Books, where she champions a wider view of nature writing. In a few sentences, she sums up Savoy’s book: “In blazing, beautiful prose, unblinkingly researched and reported, Savoy explores how the country’s still unfolding history, along with ideas of ‘race,’ have marked her and the land. She also traces, in a mosaic of journeys across a continent and time, her mixed-blood ancestry, carefully taking apart the frame at dovetail joints, curiously inspecting and turning over the smallest points of connection, omission, dislocation, and break.”

Throughout her work, Savoy advocates for a more diverse and nuanced view of nature and the environment, and she encourages us to remember that each place we visit has a complex history. I welcome and respect her voice. I found Trace to be fascinating and inspiring to read, and I think anyone who enjoys Leopold, Walt Whitman, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard and Terry Tempest Williams would love this book too. Next time you go an a walk through your neighborhood park or on a road trip in the Southwest, bring it with you.