In the wake of Hurricane Dorian — the fifth hurricane to reach Category 5 status over the last four North Atlantic hurricane seasons— the question keeps nagging: Is there nothing that will disrupt the nation’s political stalemate on climate response?
A growing number of Americans describe climate change as a crisis, and two thirds say too little is being done about it. And yet the fact remains that a bloc of GOP-leaning “red” states — entrenched in the Senate — constitute what Ron Brownstein calls a “brown barricade.” Hailing from states that are heavy fossil-fuel producers or consumers, these states and their senators continue to represent a seemingly immutable blockade against serious climate response, even as scientific consensus signals an emergency and new data shows the rate of planetary warming is accelerating.
But what if we look at the geography of climate change from a different angle? Specifically, what if we flip the frame from emissions to impacts? From that perspective, the current stalemate might not be as permanent as it now seems. Many of the states that have selected leaders opposed to climate action are the ones most exposed to its damages. And that may lead to change.
The key here is the political geography of the mayhem.
Recently, our group at Brookings worked with data from the Climate Impact Lab to probe the political geography of climate-related economic impacts, ranging from changes in agricultural yield to coastal damage to mortality rates and other harms. First, we looked at the geography of climate harm; then we assessed its political ramifications.
Looking at the data, a striking picture emerges of the projected county-by-county impacts of climate change on local communities by the end of the century:
Scanning the map, you can see that while the projected economic impacts of climate change are widely distributed, they are especially concentrated in the American Southeast, the Gulf Coast, and Florida. In these places, many counties will see 10% to 20% or more hits to their aggregate income. So the data suggests that many red-voting states in the “brown barricade” are likely to be heavily and disproportionately exposed to climate change’s negative impacts.
Drill down on the political geography of climate damage, and it becomes clear that in much of the country, Republicans are voting for people who are opposed to climate policy, even as they are most exposed to climate damages.
To show this, the table below ranks states by the degree of economic harm their counties are projected to experience en masse from climate change and compares that to their political behavior on climate policy (as indicated by the state’s 2016 presidential vote).
The pattern is unmistakable. Many of the states with the most to lose from climate change voted heavily for Donald Trump in 2016, thereby electing a president who has disavowed his own government’s National Climate Assessment and systematically moved to dismantle former President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and regulatory initiatives to reduce carbon emissions.
The alignment is sharp: Nine of the 10 states contending with the highest losses of county income voted for President Trump in 2016, including Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alabama. Fifteen of the 16 highest-harm states were red, and twenty eight of the 30 senators in those states are Republican.
By contrast, the bottom portion of the chart shows the inverse. Hilary Clinton — who favored a continuation of President Obama’s emission limits and carbon diplomacy —carried 9 of the 17 states that actually stand to gain from climate change, despite her promise to take action against it.
What does all of this say about the future prospects of U.S. policy on climate change? At first blush, it’s not entirely clear — it’s certainly true that a poisonous cocktail of right-wing ideology, distrust of Washington, and fears of short-term job losses may continue to maintain the “brown blockade.” Many scholars have shown the durability of “tribalism.”
But it’s possible that the economic harm of climate change may begin to break down the “barricade” as more voters become aware that acute climate impacts are already happening.
Some public opinion polls suggest that Republican attitudes on climate change are already softening. This summer’s increasing mentions of “hurricane fatigue” in Florida and South Carolina could sharpen into political frustration in the near future as more and more storms, droughts, and fires roll in—repetitively, more frequently, but never predictably. Holes in the “brown blockade” may also begin to appear as affected states are forced to make political trade-offs to secure support for disaster aid.
Looking to the future, activists who want to change the political equation can learn from the harm map: Go local in reddish swing states by focusing on the damages being caused by climate change. Know that political attitudes could shift quickly as people are confronted with the new reality. That’s exactly what has happened on other seemingly gridlocked topics — for example, on criminal justice reform, or the regulation of technology companies — when political attitudes have been forced to repeatedly confront new realities around the dinner table and on television.
In sum, environmentalists should reorient their efforts from the abstract to the specific. In the past, they stressed the need to make progress against far-off, abstract benchmarks. Now, they should focus on how the harms caused by climate change are coming home to roost in “red” America.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Mark Muro is a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. David Victor is a nonresident senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings and a professor of international relations at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD).
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