SAN FRANCISCO — As leading Democrats rallied around efforts to address climate change at a major summit here this week, upbraiding President Donald Trump for his dismissiveness of the issue, one worrisome question hung over the proceedings: Will anyone care?
Despite repeated warnings about the severity of the crisis, climate change has long failed to gain traction as a voting issue in American elections. And Trump’s rollback of Obama-era climate policies has done little to draw climate off the sidelines in the midterm elections.
Even Democrats this year rarely advertised on climate, running campaigns dominated instead by more immediate concerns about health care, immigration and jobs.
“It’s too remote. It’s not today. It’s not conflict,” California Gov. Jerry Brown, one of the nation’s leading advocates of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said in an interview. “So that’s where we are, and climate change is not jobs, not taxes, it’s not violent crime. It’s not sex. And it’s not immigration.”
Still, Brown added, “The fact that politicians don’t take out ads on climate change says more about the state of the political imagination than about the state of the world. And the state of the world is — I say it with absolute confidence — we are headed to perdition if we don’t pull back. And we don’t have that many years left.”
For Democrats, recent polling would suggest an electorate receptive to messaging on climate. According to a survey by researchers at Yale and George Mason universities in May, liberal Democrats ranked global warming fourth among issues they said would influence their vote in congressional races this year.
“This is the base — this is what they’re all trying to gin up and appeal to, both at the primary level and as a way to get out the vote come November,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. “And among liberal Democrats, global warming is now No. 4.”
But opinions about climate change remain deeply polarized, and other concerns prove more pressing. Health care, gun policies and environmental protection rank higher than climate change as voting issues for liberal Democrats, according to the Yale and George Mason study. And just 2 percent of American voters overall rank global warming as their most important issue when voting for a congressional candidate.
Even at the climate summit — a gathering of like-minded activists in the liberal enclave of San Francisco — attentions were occasionally divided. After praising local and state measures to reduce emissions at a press conference at the summit, Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire donor and former New York mayor, abruptly pivoted to gun control.
“I’m sure you read in the papers this morning, there was another mass shooting that happened yesterday, this time in Southern California,” he said.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said that while Democratic candidates are pressing their case on climate change, especially to young voters, “you can’t say it’s predominate” compared to other campaign themes.
And the inability to move voters on climate change as a singular issue has significant implications. Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist, spent years focused on climate before broadening his political organization with massive investments in voter registration and a campaign organizing support for impeaching Trump.
“In order to win on [climate change],” he said, “we have to win a bunch of elections.”
Trump, who has called climate change a “hoax,” infuriated Democrats with his move to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and, more recently, to gut regulations on coal-fired power plants. With Trump in office, climate change action in the United States has largely shifted to cities, states and private industry.
This week, a coalition of 16 states and Puerto Rico committed to a range of new measures to expand solar development, reduce methane and black carbon emissions and better manage state lands. Twenty-seven cities, including New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, announced that greenhouse gas emissions had already peaked in their jurisdictions.
“Clearly, we’ve taken a huge step backwards from the Paris accords,” said former Democratic California Gov. Gray Davis.
Yet while Davis said he is “100 percent for doing everything possible to reduce carbon emissions,” he said, “It’s not clear to me whether it’s an election winning argument. It might be an election winning argument in some counties in California, and maybe in some of the other … states that tend to follow what we do. But it’s a little under the radar.”
As a rule, Davis said, politicians “don’t like to talk about anything that is disturbing,” and “just the notion that this planet that is hurtling through space as we talk, like any living entity — at some point it will not be living — is a very disturbing fact to anybody.”
“What if I told you you were going to die?” Davis said. “You’re doing to die. I know you’re going to die. You know you’re going to die. I’m going to die before you. But it rarely is discussed. You don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to remind you of it.”
Many Democrats have held out hope that the increasingly visible and immediate effects of climate change could elevate it as a voting issue. Apart from longer-range forecasts of such calamities as famine and mass migration, climate researchers have credited climate change with exacerbating the effects of hurricanes, wildfires and floods. Hurricane Florence was hurtling into North Carolina as the climate summit concluded Friday.
“I think that there is a new participant in the discussion, and that’s mother nature,” former Vice President Al Gore said in an interview on the sidelines of the summit. “And the increasing frequency and severity of these climate-related disasters almost every night on the news now is really driving further change that I think does give the issue great political significance.”
Gore predicted climate change will factor in the 2020 presidential campaign, saying record-breaking temperatures and natural disasters have “shifted the dialogue fairly significantly.”
In some areas of the country, climate change does already resonate, with a smattering of Democrats — and fewer Republicans — putting money into messaging on the issue. In Illinois, Democrat Sean Casten attacked Republican Rep. Peter Roskam with a television ad scolding, “He called climate change junk science.” And in the Democratic primary in a coastal district in California’s Orange County, Harley Rouda opened a television spot by asserting that “fighting climate change should be so important to all of us.”
More common, however, are less explicit climate-based appeals regarding recreation, public health or jobs.
“Clean air, clean water, public lands, boy, when I talk to people in Colorado — and I mean in the rural areas, the conservative people, they’re into it,” said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. “When I’m in the inner city, they’re into it.”
Talking about climate change, on the other hand, is “divisive,” he said. “The words, climate change, have been demonized.”
Yet Hickenlooper, like most politicians here this week, took an optimistic view of shifting public opinion, citing increased concern about climate change among young people.
“Obviously, climate change is one of these things where we think there is going to be a very severe tale to it if we don’t really get ourselves in gear,” Hickenlooper said. “But, we will. It’s like Churchill said about the Americans: We’ll do the right thing once we’ve exhausted every other possibility.”