By Lisa Friedman
President Joe Biden has done more than any president to tackle climate change, but strategists are grappling with an uncomfortable fact: Voters don’t seem to know it.
Biden has orchestrated the biggest ever federal investment in clean energy and electric vehicles and has proposed what would be the first limits on planet-warming pollution from power plants as well as the tightest restrictions on tailpipe emissions. He is cracking down on methane, a potent greenhouse gas, that leaks from oil and gas wells. Taken together, these efforts could substantially reduce the country’s contribution to global warming.
But as he faces a bruising reelection campaign against the Republican front-runner, former President Donald Trump many Democrats said the president is failing to communicate his most significant policy achievements.
In recent months, polls have found that most Americans are unaware of the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s signature climate law. Of those who have heard of the law — with a name that has nothing to do with climate — few know that it marks the federal government’s biggest attempt to cut the greenhouse gases that are dangerously warming the planet.
The 2022 law provides at least $370 billion to reduce carbon pollution by boosting the production of wind, solar and other renewable energy, and providing millions of dollars in tax credits to homeowners and consumers to move away from fossil fuels.
That’s consequential because nearly 7 out of every 10 people who voted for Biden in the last presidential election said climate change was very important to their vote. According to a poll last month from The Economist/YouGov, 18% of those Biden voters from 2020 now list climate as their top priority.
“Climate voters could make or break Joe Biden in 2024,” said Nathaniel Stinnett, executive director of the Environmental Voter Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit that encourages environmentalists to vote.
A national poll conducted in fall 2023 found a majority of Americans support a number of Biden’s climate policies, including generating solar and wind energy on public lands (79% in favor), tax rebates for energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels (74%), and funding for research into renewable energy (79%).
And 68% of those surveyed even backed a carbon tax on oil and gas producers — something the Biden administration has not suggested, for fear that it would be blocked in Congress.
But while polls indicate parts of Biden’s climate agenda are popular, “it’s really hard for people to feel really good about a policy when they don’t know about it,” Stinnett said.
On Friday, Biden imposed a temporary pause on permitting new liquefied natural gas export facilities in order to first analyze their impacts on climate change. In issuing the order, Biden promised he would “heed the calls of young people and front-line communities” who have criticized him for approving an enormous oil development in Alaska known as the Willow project and allowing continued oil and gas drilling on federal lands and waters.
Michelle Weindling, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate activist group, said she wants to hear more just like that, and louder. “I want him to unapologetically run on behalf of solving the climate crisis,” Weindling said.
Young climate-minded voters helped Biden win in 2020 but he has been losing support from some of those voters over the war in the Gaza Strip.
With less than 10 months before the election, Democratic strategists, pollsters and analysts said the president needs to talk more often and with specificity about his climate policies.
“We haven’t really made the case,” said Simon Rosenberg, a veteran Democratic strategist.
Biden has been walking a tightrope when it comes to fossil fuels. Under his watch, the federal government is making record investments in electric vehicles and renewable energy. But the United States is also now the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas, as well as the leading exporter of liquefied natural gas. The president wants the country to transition away from fossil fuels at the same time he wants to keep gas and oil supplies abundant enough that prices at the pump and home heating bills are affordable.
When Biden talks about climate change, it is almost always in the context of jobs and the economy.
“I signed a historic law — the most significant investment combating the existential threat of climate change ever, anywhere in the world,” Biden said in November at a manufacturing plant in Pueblo, Colorado, that produces towers for wind turbines and, because of the new law, is investing $200 million to double production and creating 850 jobs.
“Like I said: When I hear climate, I think jobs,” Biden said. It is a line he has repeated in multiple settings.
Some data suggests that might not be the winning message.
One of the biggest climate marketing studies of its kind, a public opinion poll across the United States and 18 other countries that was conducted last summer, found that “protecting the planet for the next generation” overwhelmingly beats out other arguments for taking climate action. Researchers found the so-called “urgent generational message” was 12 times more popular than the promise of creating jobs.
“At the heart of this is love,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, which conducted the study with other nonprofit groups including Potential Energy Coalition, the Meliore Foundation and Zero Ideas.
“People love particular people, places and things,” Leiserowitz said. “And those people, places and things are being threatened.”
When Biden presents climate action as a jobs program, “I don’t find it convincing,” he said. “And I think this data shows most people don’t find it convincing, either.”
An economic argument has a place, said John Marshall, founder and CEO of the Potential Energy Coalition, a nonprofit focused on increasing public awareness of climate change.
But, he added, “our data really clearly says, ‘Go through the front door, look people in the eye, and tell them we all know and we all agree that climate change is a threat to our way of life and our kids, and we need to fix this particular problem.’”
Biden administration and campaign officials point out that the president does not exclusively focus on the economy. When nations at a United Nations climate summit agreed last month to transition away from fossil fuels, Biden called it “our collective responsibility to build a safer, more hopeful future for our children.” In announcing the freeze on gas export permits Friday, Biden said he “sees the climate crisis for what it is: the existential threat of our time.”
Biden still needs to tell voters what he would do in a second term to slow global warming and preserve the health of the planet, Stinnett said.
“The climate crisis is moving faster than our politics, and climate-concerned voters are desperate for a strong climate leader in the White House,” Stinnett said, adding, “I want to hear what’s next.”