I recently convened a pair of focus groups of Trump-to-Biden voters, who are currently the most coveted demographic in politics. We talked a while about climate change. And their views may describe the narrow parameters of what’s politically feasible on climate in America right now.
The two sobering focus groups on August 10 contained a total of 13 Trump-to-Biden voters from the most competitive 2020 states—six Democrats, three Republicans, and four independents.
Our online focus groups took place the day after the U.N. released its most recent, and quite pessimistic, report, which had received extensive coverage the day before. The single most notable finding of the night may have been that by the evening of August 10, only three of the 13 had heard anything about it.
With that baseline of un-knowledge, we played for the group an August 9 segment from the CBS Evening News about the report. And their reactions were, again, indicative of a certain view—or rather, obstruction.
When I asked Tami, 61, from Mahtomedi, Minnesota, whether she’d seen reports like the one from CBS before, she replied, “Probably headlines. I tend to not have time to actually sit down and watch the news.”
Ann, a 51-year-old from Glendale, Arizona, added, “Not exactly like that. I’ve seen like maybe different clips focusing on different things, but not all together.”
Only four of the Trump-Biden voters said news about climate change animated them to take some sort of action. Three said they are immobilized by bad climate news, and six say they just avoid it altogether.
And the action-takers weren’t political action-takers. They were talking about personal behaviors:
- “My wife definitely looks for sustainable products or things [to avoid, like] palm oil,” said Thomas, 35, from Palm Bay, Florida. “[It] is one of those things that devastate rain[forests] . . . so I know she tries to avoid products and things that contain stuff.”
- “I recycle. I consolidate trips. I try to drive less, walk more, use sustainable products,” said Tami from Mahtomedi. “So I try to do that, but that’s not to say I won’t have to consider something more drastic down the line, but currently I’m not.” She added: “I’m not the type of person that’s going to go out and rally and start a big group in Minnesota, but it just starts with one person sometimes so there’s more I can be doing.”
- “I tried to plant more native plants around my house that are more water friendly, and that don’t require me to water them as much,” said JoAnna, 57, from Plano, Texas.
Those who reported being immobilized demonstrated how hard it is to move moderate voters:
- “I’m in that ‘stuck phase’ of you can’t deny what you know,” said Ann from Glendale. “Hindsight is 20-20. You’ve got to accept it, but it causes anxiety, it causes stress, because you can’t avoid it, you can’t deny it. But I don’t see me going out and moving into the forest and living off the land. It’s an internal conflict that causes that anxiety.”
- “[It’s] such an overwhelming problem,” observed Greg, 57, from Chester, Pennsylvania. “Now I agree that, yeah, there’s a little bit I can do on my end. But overall, the large population of the world has to get together, and that’s why I’m immobilized because it’s not a problem we can solve as individuals.”
And then there were the avoiders, who steer clear of climate change and just want to live their lives unencumbered:
- “I’m not really too big into climate change,” declared Shannon, 45, from McMurray, Pennsylvania. “I don’t really follow it too much, so I don’t think it’s really a threat.” (Note that last sentence, which suggests that the severity of the problem is linked to how much Shannon pays attention to it.)
- Todd, 59, from Eagan, Minnesota, at first agreed with Shannon. But he also contradicted himself. First, he suggested that climate change was not a threat. Later he switched and declared that climate change is a threat, but one posed by China and other countries: “I don’t think that’s a threat. I mean to me it’s just Mother Nature taking this course. We’ve been through the stages and all that stuff. It’s just…everybody talks about America [needing] to go to take care of [it]. Start with China and the other countries first. Let’s look at what they’re doing, okay?”
- Michael, 50, from Farmers Branch, Texas, said: “I don’t know how you’re going to stop a tornado. I don’t know how you’re going to stop Katrina. I don’t know how you’re going to stop wildfires. I mean just because you throw money at it—that’s a natural disaster, you know. It just happens.”
- Than, 49, from McKinney, Texas, was one of eight respondents who does not think he’s contributing to climate change: “In a way this may be kind of shallow, but I feel like I’m not a big polluter, I really just drive to work, that’s it. I’m not doing anything else to harm the environment.”
Paradoxically, most of the people in the groups thought that human activity is having adverse effects on the environment. Eight of the 13 agreed that human activity is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather. Ten said that extreme weather events are happening more often now than when they were children. Yet 11 said that climate change was an issue affecting future generations more than themselves, while two didn’t think it was a problem at all.
So what does that mean for politics?
For starters, it suggests that present-day concerns will always supersede future ones, which makes taking bold (and extremely expensive) action now especially difficult. From a typical voter’s perspective, why not put off until the day after tomorrow what could be done tomorrow, especially when the laundry list of issues needing attention today is long and pressing?
That’s perhaps why President Biden has attempted to turn the focus of climate change away from scientific projections and towards the creation of new jobs. But it’s not clear whether that message is getting through; just three respondents said they knew how President Biden plans to address climate change. While nine said they had heard of the Green New Deal, only two could explain what it would do. And none knew whether President Biden supported or opposed it. Additionally, none had any idea how Congressional Republicans would address climate change.
And yet, these swing voters offer a hint of a roadmap to climate action. Many are open to driving EVs if prices come down, there are more charging stations available, and batteries perform better in cold weather. A majority support increased government funding for clean energy. And only three agree with the statement “there’s not much humanity can do to reduce the intensity of what’s projected to unfold with extreme weather in coming decades.”
So they’re open to trying something, if the something can be tied to present-day problems and comes across as common-sense.
But don’t get optimistic. If the most important constituencies remain under-informed and largely inert on the subject, then we simply will not be able to marshal the political, economic, and scientific resources needed to tackle the challenge. After all, if the swing voters needed to win elections don’t care about climate change, why would their leaders stick their necks out to do something about it?