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Voters Care About Climate Change. That’s Not Enough

Polls consistently show that we’re worried about climate change, but many of us—especially politicians—don’t act like it.

A demonstrator draped in American flag iconography holds a "climate justice" sign.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images
Climate activists hold up signs at the offices of Senator Mark Warner during the Rally to #SealtheDeal for Climate, Jobs, Care, and Justice in Virginia.

The strange backdrop to world leaders largely punting on their obligations to the future at the COP26 climate summit, while U.S. Democrats struggle to keep any of their once-ambitious climate plans in the budget reconciliation bill, is that more people—in theory—worry about climate change than ever before. The number of Americans who deny the scientific consensus on climate change is small, only 10 percent, despite internet misinformation and years of industry propaganda. An AP poll late last month found a large majority concerned about the issue, with 59 percent saying that global warming was “extremely important” to them—a 10-point increase from 2018. Yet none of this seems to translate into political salience. Not only are there few mass protests, but the party of climate denial also had a good election night last week. In exit polls in Virginia, where far-right Glenn Youngkin beat Democrat Terry McAuliffe, asked what issues motivated them, voters didn’t even mention climate.

How can we be so “concerned” about an issue without it seeming to influence our choices?

Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry Bartels, author of numerous books and papers on the weirdness of American public opinion, is skeptical about the widespread concern. In an email, Bartels told me that pollsters have never been good at measuring the intensity of voters’ feelings. “While it is easy for people to say that they are very concerned about climate change,” he explained, “for many it is probably—still—a relatively abstract threat in comparison to grocery prices, vaccine mandates, and what’s going on in their kids’ schools.”

An ABC/Washington Post poll, the results of which were reported Friday, supports Bartels’s reservations. Americans are closely split on whether climate is “an urgent problem that demands government action” (45 percent) or “a longer-term problem that requires more study” (slightly more, 49 percent). Most of us are at least a bit worried about climate, but we disagree on its urgency.

But Bartels doesn’t think any issues matter to voters that much. Voting is driven more by social identities and “symbolic values” than policies. In fact, insofar as climate change can be seen as a culture-war issue—remember how Trump railed against eco-friendly showerheads and light bulbs—people may reject the identity it evokes. Igniting controversy on Twitter and when interviewed by Ezra Klein in The New York Times in October, political consultant David Shor said that when he tested environmental talking points, those related to climate change performed the worst. “Very liberal white people care way more about climate change than anyone else,” he told Klein. “So when you talk about climate change, you sound like a weird, very liberal white person. This is why policy issues matter more than people realize … the policies you choose to talk about paint a picture of what kind of person you are.”

Yet both Bartels’s and Shor’s arguments point at what is, at its heart, a psychological dissonance. And so I called Sally Weintrobe, a psychoanalyst and author of The Psychological Roots of Climate Change: Neoliberal Exceptionalism and the Culture of Uncare, published by Bloomsbury in April. In her book, Weintrobe argues that all of us are by nature both caring and uncaring, but neoliberalism—the individualistic economic system and ideology that has dominated much of the globe for the last four decades—nourishes our most selfish side. “This is not just an uncaring culture,” Weintrobe told me. “It is culture aiming at un-caring us, separating us from our caring part.” You could see the contradictions in polling as a sign of struggle between our most caring and most uncaring selves; we do care, perhaps more and more, yet too often put aside that care to vote in our immediate self-interest, or push climate’s immediacy out of our minds.

In order for voters to act from a place of care, Weintrobe argues, they need to feel cared for. And here she mobilizes the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s influential concept of the “good enough” mother. The “good enough” mother provides care and sets limits so that children can thrive, perhaps ultimately caring for others and setting limits of their own. The good enough mother loves and feeds the children but also curbs their destructive impulses, stopping them from hitting each other over the head or pushing their friends off the swingset. Weintrobe argues that for a culture of care to thrive—and for us as humans to be able to face the problem of climate change—we need “good enough” government. We need to feel cared for—which includes knowing that our destructive behavior will be regulated—in order to care properly for the planet and for our fellow humans.

Weintrobe thinks Biden needs to speak more directly about climate change. “He’s not really talking to people. There’s a lack of directness there,” she says, explaining that he could help Americans realize how they actually feel about global warming. “A lot of people don’t recognize how anxious they are, until there is someone who can understand how anxious they are.”

But the problem isn’t just Biden as a leader or as a person. It’s our whole system.

After all, Larry Bartels points out, whatever the people may think, politicians aren’t listening to them anyway. U.S. politicians—whether in Congress or in negotiations at COP26—decide climate policy largely on their own instincts, alliances, interpretations of the evidence, and whoever is writing their campaign checks. Partly because they know voters aren’t motivated by issues, he says, “public opinion tends to be a relatively minor consideration in the decisions of elected officials.” Sometimes their views overlap with those of voters, he says, “but the correspondence is mostly coincidental and seldom politically decisive.”

Over the years, Bartels’s analyses, in which voters blame incumbents for shark attacks (as voters did in New Jersey in 1916) yet rarely for the problems that fall under the government’s control, have been revealing voters’ deep alienation from government. The problem, then, might be bigger than Biden or his messaging or David Shor.

A culture of uncare and a lack of democracy may feed one another. Advocates for the Green New Deal argue that people will support the massive changes required for a more sustainable society if it means they enjoy better jobs and working conditions and more investment in their communities. To heal our ailing body politic, Dr. Weintrobe, too, prescribes Scandinavian-style democratic socialism. It may be that cognitively, being cared for creates the space for us to care, helps develop our caring capacities. Recent elections in Scandinavian countries support this, with climate a huge factor in September in ousting the conservatives in Norway and Danish voters also recently galvanized by the issue. Knowing that you—along with everyone else around you—enjoy childcare, a decent wage, health care, she says, “you feel differently about the world.” Perhaps less guilty, anxious, or resentful and more compassionate and engaged. “What we’re talking about,” she says, “is a government for the people.”