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Red States, Blue States and Losing Green Space

What Climate Change Means for American Politics

July 8, 2021

Photo artwork by Jacob Wendler

If the 2020 election made one thing clear, it’s that the U.S. politics of the twenty-first century are hardly recognizable by the standards of past decades. Presidential debates were marked by fierce exchanges over issues that were absent from the minds of politicians 20 years ago, and the electoral map featured a mosaic of blue-states-turned-red and red-states-turned-purple.

If there’s one issue that no candidate could avoid taking a stance on — in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic and racial unrest — it’s the alarming pace at which sea levels are rising, the planet is warming and glaciers are melting.

Every modern president has approached the existential challenge of climate change differently, and some have been more aggressive than others. Former President Donald Trump, specifically, was known to mock and undermine statistical evidence of human-caused climate change. 

Consistent with this attitude, Trump pursued a much more deregulation-focused agenda and favored the perspective of businesses rather than prioritizing environmental concerns. One of Trump’s most influential actions in this field was his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, an agreement between 195 nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions and take other measures to evade the most threatening impacts of climate change.

This approach draws a stark contrast with that of President Joe Biden. According to the Brookings Institute, Biden “has established an ambitious goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Achieving this goal would require reversing the current course of rolling back regulation, along with new legislation.”

In April, Biden convened 40 world leaders in a virtual Leaders Summit on Climate to discuss global strategy for tackling climate change and emphasize the need for international cooperation. At the summit, Biden recommitted the United States to the Paris Agreement and announced an ambitious goal for the country: cutting emissions by 50-52 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. 

According to a fact sheet provided by the White House Briefing Room, Biden also announced other initiatives at the summit including revitalizing the transport sector, implementing nature-based solutions and promoting innovation to bring clean technologies to scale.

More recently, Biden spoke out directly about how the administration is planning to tackle climate change in regards to citizens. “Today is ‘Climate Day’ at the White House – which means that today is ‘Jobs Day’ at the White House. We’re talking about American innovation, American products, American labor. And we’re talking about the health of our families and cleaner water, cleaner air and cleaner communities. We’re talking about national security and America leading the world in a clean energy future,” said Biden. 

Biden’s remarks emphasize his consistent belief that fighting climate change will fuel economic growth, important retribution to conservative critics who often undermine these efforts as an economic hindrance.

More specifically, Biden went on to say how the Biden-Harris administration sympathizes with states like California and many others that have seen devastating results of our climate truly changing over the past year. Biden spoke about taking leaps instead of steps to try and help our economy as well as our environment. 

Biden added, “It’s not time for small measures; we need to be bold. So, let me be clear: That includes helping revitalize the economies of coal, oil, and gas, and power plant communities. We have to start by creating new, good-paying jobs, capping those abandoned wells, reclaiming mines, turning old brownfield sites into new hubs of economic growth, creating new, good-paying jobs in those communities where those workers live because they helped build this country.” These words of assurance represent the administration’s attempt to balance both economic and environmental concerns.

With a scientific perspective on two different president’s approaches to tackling the issue of climate change, WHS Environmental Science Teacher Jeffrey Robbins weighed in on just how much our climate has changed and how important factoring in climate policy is when voting for a political candidate. Robbins said, “The environment and the changes we have witnessed with the environment has become a fairly political issue, and we are seeing how many politicians will be speaking about certain issues and cherry-picking data to appeal to certain viewpoints.” Robbins also pointed to the faults of politicians and citizens alike, who often lack the scientific knowledge to accurately make sense of the numbers surrounding climate change: “A lot of times we will see politicians questioning very large data sets when a single event happens and a lot of times people misinterpret the nature of science.”

In an exclusive interview with Optic, Acting Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) Shawn LaTourette spoke about his work with the Biden administration since his appointment to head the agency by Governor Phil Murphy in January.

“Sometimes I joke that the president must have taken a page out of Governor Murphy’s playbook,” said LaTourette, who is the first openly gay commissioner of the state agency and has years of experience in the area of environmental justice. “In terms of the goals that they’ve set and the initiatives: they want to move forward. They’ve made climate a top priority. They’ve made environmental justice a top priority. New Jersey is [already] leading the entire country and furthering the promise of environmental justice.”

This agenda addresses concerns shared by many New Jersey residents. LaTourette explained, “Overwhelmingly, New Jerseyans believe that climate change is a significant problem and that we must do things to address it,” referencing a 2019 study by the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University which found that about two-thirds of New Jersey residents are either “very” or “somewhat” concerned about the effects of climate change on their life, their family members or the people around them.

“Where the split seems to be in terms of public opinion,” LaTourette added, “is how doing something affects [each individual].”

LaTourette went on to explain that large-scale reports on the immediate threats posed by climate change may feel “esoteric or abstract,” and the NJDEP works to “aggregate and distill all of that science and explain what it means for New Jersey.” With regard to concrete effects of climate change on New Jersey residents, LaTourette pointed to the potential of losing the New Jersey state bird (the American Goldfinch), the $60+ million blueberry industry in the state and barrier islands such as Seaside Heights.

According to LaTourette, communicating the risks of climate change to the public is one of the top priorities of the NJDEP. LaTourette also spoke about common misconceptions regarding the relationship between climate change and the economy. 

LaTourette said that previous generations were told a self-perpetuating narrative that “you can have a healthy economy, or you can have a healthy environment and you must choose, but that has always been wrong.” In LaTourette’s view, this hypothesis fuels animosity toward environmental protection that has often prevented decisive action.

To counteract this narrative, LaTourette said Governor Murphy and himself hope to “tell the story that there’s a unity between how we succeed as an economy and how we protect our environment.” 

For example, LaTourette referenced a study published in the scientific journal Nature Communications last month which found that climate change exacerbated the economic harm of Hurricane Sandy by about $8 billion dollars. The finding enforces his view that, in the long term, every dollar invested in infrastructure and mitigation saves money in recovery.

In addition to the unique challenges posed by climate change, the issue has also amplified other social and political problems in unique ways. The nuanced obstacles of large-scale migration have been laid bare this year with the White House’s struggle to contain the surge in migration at the southern border. While the evidence remains more anecdotal, the limited statistical information available shows that, if left unchecked, climate change will reshape our borders and our demographics – and with them, the political landscape of our nation.

Data have shown that, generally, changes in climate play a significant role in the migration trends of people both within and across borders, be that directly or indirectly. A 2012 study by the Nansen Initiative (a joint effort between the governments of Switzerland, Norway and other participating nations to identify effective approaches to climate change) proved that sudden-onset disasters such as wildfires and major storms often correlate to intranational migration. 

Researchers have concluded that, in the event of a disaster, individuals are often displaced from their immediate residence, but lack the resources to flee across borders. 

As these disasters “become more frequent and intense,” and as “slow-onset disasters and environmental degradation” become more visible, however, more people are likely to cross borders in large numbers to seek more stable and habitable environments.

Just last month, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre published its Global Report on Internal Displacement 2021, which found that last year, 30.7 million people were displaced domestically due to extreme weather events, including 1.7 million people in the United States. This amounted to more than three times the number of people displaced by conflict and violence that same year.

A joint project between The New York Times Magazine and ProPublica set out to find how these trends may continue and evolve in the future and provided particular insight into the phenomenon of internal climate-induced migration within the United States. The project concluded that “climate change is fast making large parts of the United States nearly uninhabitable.” 

With time, the authors wrote, the bottom half of the country will become uninhabitable due to intense storms and remarkably high temperatures, and around 10 percent of Americans living in the South and the Southwest may choose to move North as states such as Vermont and Minnesota simultaneously grow more temperate. These migrants will likely be disproportionately young and economically well-off and will congregate in Northern cities.

More often than not, though, the correlation between climate change and migration is indirect, and many factors are at play. The Center for American Progress points to anecdotal evidence of large-scale migration from the Northern Triangle region of Central America: In these countries, unpredictable precipitation, widespread drought and erratic temperature changes have led to rampant crop failure, which in turn has hurt access to food and reliable income, fueling migration out of the region.

These trends, however, should come as no surprise. Historically, climate factors have impacted numerous major population changes, ranging from the fall of the Mayan Empire to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.

As the issue of climate-induced, cross-national migration becomes more relevant, though, many academics and politicians remain unsure about what terminology should be applied to the current situation. In recent years, many politicians and scholars have popularized the use of the term “climate refugees,” but not everyone agrees on this term. While seemingly inconsequential, the language used to classify persons displaced by climate change has great political implications. Specifically, the term “refugee” alone brings with it decades of political weight and roots in extensive legislation around the world. 

Today, the criteria for refugee status remain dictated by old laws that have yet to see alteration or modernization. Under international law, the topic is covered primarily by the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Refugee Protocol, and in the U.S., by the Refugee Act of 1980. These laws, predictably, lack language about environmental degradation and climate disasters, leaving many displaced persons in a convoluted gray area.

Proponents of refugee status for these individuals argue that the existing framework is archaic and point to data that suggest that in the coming decades, millions of people around the world could be deprived of their homes as a result of climate change. 

The aforementioned study by the Nansen Initiative concluded that, “Looking to the future, there is high agreement among scientists that climate change, in combination with other factors, is projected to increase displacement in the future, with migration increasingly becoming an important response to both extreme weather events and longer-term climate variability and change.”

The previously mentioned New York Times Magazine/ProPublica collaboration summarized the findings of a unique model fed with more than 10 billion data points. The model projected that tens of millions of people around the world could be displaced by high tides within the next three decades, with notable peaks along the U.S. coasts and in several Asian countries.

As recently as April, bills have been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate calling for the creation of a government-funded humanitarian program that would provide protections for “climate-displaced persons.” 

The cause has been championed by progressive lawmakers Edward Markey (D-MA) in the Senate and Nydia Velázquez (D-NY-7) in the House.

Many, however, remain skeptical of the extension of current language to the new issue of climate-induced migration. A 2016 essay by Gregory White, a professor of government at Smith College, warns against viewing climate change as a “threat multiplier that will produce ‘climate refugees.’” White argues that this claim lacks the backing of concrete data, misinterprets security threats and diverts attention from important policy responses.

What all this means is that, in addition to contributing to a shift in the defining political issues of the century, climate change also has the potential to reshape the electorate of the United States. In which direction and to what extent, however, remains to be seen.

With regard to interstate migration, a relatively clear picture is already being painted: In the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election, pollsters predicted two previous Republican strongholds — Georgia and Texas — potentially going blue. While the latter prediction did not come to fruition quite yet, it’s clear that recent migration patterns contributed to the Democratic shift in both states. 

As wildfires threaten the quality of life in California (home to both the most people in America, as well as the most registered Democrats), hundreds of thousands of California residents have relocated to urban Texas in recent years. This trend has begun to threaten the universal grip previously held by the GOP on Texas politics.

Add to that the New York Times Magazine/ProPublica’s projections of a massive migration towards Northern cities, and you get a map that looks increasingly blue, both in terms of submerged coastal land and electoral counts.

The political implications of a rise in migration from South and Central America, however, remain less apparent, as the 2020 election undermined the previously held belief that a surge in immigration from South and Central America would exclusively benefit Democrats.

No matter what part of the country you live in, the political climate and our environment are drastically changing. Many Americans, willingly or not, are upending their lives and relocating due to the devastating effects of climate change. As the effect of issues like rising sea levels and destructive forest fires on migration patterns and political campaigns becomes more evident, the makeup of our nation’s electorate and the views of its voters are likely to change substantially. Just like our environment, our country’s politics are forever adapting and changing based on the people and their actions; the question that remains to be answered is who will come out on top and who will be left behind.

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