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Opinion | Diane Hessan

Climate change will be a decisive issue in 2020

(Globe Staff; Adobe)

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n November 2018, a federal government report, filed by 13 agencies, laid out the damaging effects of climate change, along with a dismal set of projections about the future. President Trump’s response to the report? “I don’t believe it.”

The president has been a consistent skeptic about the climate change, but last week I decided to check in with my panel of 500 voters across the country — to see how they were thinking about the issue and its importance.

“I believe climate change is a very big problem, and I do want to be kind to Mother Earth,” said Christina from New Jersey. “We need to get away from fossil fuels and it needs to be attacked from all angles.” Although Christina sounds like a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club, she is actually a lifelong Republican and enthusiastic supporter of President Trump. And she is not alone. Colleen, a Republican from Massachusetts, believes that climate change is “very scary.” When I say I am surprised that she, as a huge fan of Trump, feels that way, she explains that in this political climate, regular voters in her party are “misunderstood and underestimated,” and more educated than Democrats would expect.

In fact, over the last few months, among the 500 people in my nationwide pool of voters, climate change has gone from an issue that was a top priority for only a few to one that a large majority believe is urgent to address. Over 90 percent of Democrats in my group rate addressing climate change as a top priority, and half of Republicans tell me they feel the same way. Over half of Democrats rate it a higher priority than addressing opioid addiction or election hacking or student loan debt. Among Republicans, there is still skepticism about whether humans caused the challenge we are facing, but paradoxically, there is general agreement that humans can do something about it.

We just might be approaching a tipping point, the term popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell to signify a moment of critical mass, when an idea spreads like wildfire. Voters tell me that their increased passion comes from a number of sources: their perception that our weather is just plain weirder, the recent announcement by Michael Bloomberg that he will invest $500 million of his own fortune in combatting environmental threats, and messages coming from their children about the importance of safeguarding their lives. “When a grandchild looks her grandparent in the face and expresses concern for her future, the grandparent is more likely to pay attention,” says Andrew, a meteorologist from Wisconsin. “We are more convinced by family members than by a graph — although I do love the data!”

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An additional influencing factor is the creation of the Green New Deal, which has gone viral just as much as anything else championed by US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. (The manifesto was cosponsored with Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey.) Virtually all voters have heard of it, and they have an opinion about it.

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In general, Republicans and moderate Democrats give it a thumbs down. “Talk about everything but the kitchen sink,” says Joseph, a Democrat from Iowa. “It starts out well, but after climate change, it adds in other things like guaranteed income, and free college and health care. And all of those crazy Democratic candidates support it? With what money — and who are they kidding?” Even Katie, a liberal Democrat from New Hampshire, says, “The Green New Deal makes action look impossible because it sets all-inclusive unrealistic goals.”

Although voters don’t necessarily support the details of the Green New Deal, they believe it is important to take action. As Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, the phenomenal clean tech incubator in Somerville, tells me, “We are finally having a national conversation about climate change, and whether you like it or not, you have to give credit to the Green New Deal.”

The tide is turning. The “Climate Kids” are suing the government in Juliana v. the United States; the Sunrise Movement is building an army of young people to elect leaders who will take action on environmental issues; Republicans in Congress, like Cory Gardner of Colorado, tell crowds that “renewable energy presents the ultimate future for this country”; Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, has proposed a Green Real Deal, focused on aggressively investing in clean energy innovation; and states like New York and California are setting aggressive goals that strive for 100 percent renewable energy. At Greentown Labs, 210 companies have been created — and clean tech has already generated more than 110,000 jobs in the Massachusetts economy.

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Nathaniel Stinnett, founder of the Environmental Voter Project, is on a mission to capitalize on this trend. His organization, via data analytics, has identified 15 million Americans who are environmentalists but who simply don’t vote. The goal: Take citizens who are passionate about addressing climate change and turn them into consistent activists, especially at the ballot box.

We clearly have resistance at the top. Just this past week, the Trump administration was accused of suppressing new Agriculture Department findings about the effects of climate change — all this while the president and his leadership team promote fossil fuel use and eliminate environmental protections.

What I hear from American voters is that it is time for action. They are increasingly impatient, and most of the voters I talk to believe that the Trump administration is wrong on this issue, influenced by the oil and gas industry and other climate-change deniers. People want urgent, concrete, high-impact solutions: a carbon tax, significant investment in renewable energy, or regulations that move us away from a single-use, throwaway society. And there is enough common ground on this issue to make it pivotal for the 2020 election.

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Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan.