Environmental issues tend to fall through the cracks in American politics, where they are often ignored, belittled or even denied by politicians. Yet this familiar political climate, much like Earth's climate, is more changeable than it might seem.
Politicians feel free to neglect air pollution, climate change and other environmental woes because they're confident voters are OK with that. And that isn't just a gut feeling: Polls have long suggested these issues are low priorities for voters.
Other polls muddle that narrative, however, pointing to a strong environmental streak among Americans overall. Earlier this year, for example, a Gallup poll found that 62 percent of Americans think the U.S. isn't doing enough to protect the environment, the highest percentage to say so since 2006. And in July, a survey found that 73 percent of Americans agree there is solid evidence of climate change, and that 60 percent agree humans are at least partly responsible. Both findings were record highs for the survey, which has been conducted twice a year since 2008.
Polls also show robust public concern for other environmental issues, from endangered species to water pollution. If Americans really care this much about their environment, why do they tolerate so many politicians who don't?
Bite the ballot
That question is the raison d'être for the Environmental Voter Project (EVP), a first-of-its-kind effort launched in 2015 by Boston attorney and political advisor Nathaniel Stinnett. After more than a decade of managing and strategizing political campaigns, Stinnett was "deeply frustrated" by the conventional wisdom that Americans are environmentally ambivalent. More importantly, he decided to find out if it's true.
"Whenever you poll likely voters and ask what issues they care about most, climate change and the environment are way, way down their list of priorities," Stinnett says. "And that can make a huge impact on policy making. If voters don't care about these issues, there's no way in hell politicians are going to care about them."
The key difference, according to Stinnett, is between registered and "likely" voters. The U.S. already lags behind many other developed nations in voter registration, but millions of Americans who are registered to vote still rarely or never do it. Some are hindered by policies that suppress voter turnout, while others may not vote due to time constraints, disillusionment or indifference. But whatever the reason, voting or not voting is a matter of public record, and modern political campaigns increasingly use these data to concentrate their resources on "likely" voters.
And that's where EVP comes in. "I noticed that when you poll all registered voters instead of just likely voters, environmental issues aren't at the bottom anymore," Stinnett says. "And so I thought, 'Maybe the environmental movement doesn't have a persuasion problem; maybe we just have a turnout problem.'"
A 'silent green majority'
Stinnett and his team began using poll data to identify "super environmentalists," or registered voters who rank the environment as one of their two most important issues. It turns out there are a lot of them, and they're more diverse than many political consultants believe. In every state where EVP has polled voter priorities, for example, it found that Latino, Asian and African-American voters are significantly more likely than white voters to prioritize climate change and the environment.
That includes important swing states like Florida, where black voters represent nearly 14 percent of the electorate and, according to EVP data, are 18.4 percent more likely than white voters to list climate change and the environment as a top priority. In Nevada, where nearly one in five voters is Latino, EVP polling shows Latino voters are 10.3 percent more likely than white voters to care about the environment.
This fits with some recent national polls, like a 2014 survey in which most Hispanic (70 percent) and black (56 percent) respondents agreed with the science of human-induced climate change, compared with 44 percent of white respondents.
Other polls have also challenged stereotypes of environmentalists as wealthy. In a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, 49 percent of Americans who make less than $50,000 a year said climate change is a "very serious problem," while only 41 percent who make more than $50,000 agreed. That may reflect expectations of more severe effects for lower-income populations, as Stinnett has pointed out, noting the same survey found that Americans in the under-$50,000 group were almost twice as likely to be "very concerned" climate change will harm them personally.
Younger Americans are more likely to prioritize environmental issues overall, but EVP data show they have many allies in older age groups, too. Parents with 13- to 15-year-old children, for instance, are just as likely as 18- to 24-year-olds to care about climate change, and are followed closely in that regard by 55- to 65-year-old grandmothers.
All of these people place high value on environmental health, and many do important things in their own lives like conserving energy and recycling. Despite those virtues, however, they don't have a great track record for showing up on Election Day.
According to EVP data, 10.1 million environmentalists who are registered to vote skipped the 2016 election, or about 50 percent, while 68 percent of all registered voters cast a ballot that year. And in the 2014 midterm elections, 15.8 million environmentalists failed to vote, leaving just 21 percent of environmentalists to cast ballots compared with 44 percent of registered voters overall.
"We have a silent green majority in this country," Stinnett says. "And if we start showing up, nobody can stop us. That's what's really exciting."
Whatever floats your vote
Browns Canyon National Monument, which protects a mosaic of public wilderness in Colorado's upper Arkansas River Valley, was designated by President Obama in 2015. (Photo: Bob Wick [CC BY 2.0]/U.S. Bureau of Land Management)
Regardless of their reasons for sitting out, most nonvoters lie to pollsters about their voting behavior, suggesting they aren't entirely proud of it.
In a recent EVP survey of 8,500 registered voters, 78 percent of respondents over-reported their actual voting histories, which EVP checked using public voting records. (Public data reveal whether or not you voted, but not how you voted.) This reveals a strong "social desirability bias" for voting, Stinnett says, which compels people to answer in a way they think others will view favorably, even if it isn't true. That may be a problem for pollsters who want accurate answers, but Stinnett sees it as an opportunity for anyone who wants to increase voter turnout.
"Even people who don't vote still buy into the societal norm that being a voter is a good thing," he says. "So if you take advantage of that, it's really powerful. It plays into who you are as a person and how you try to project yourself."
And that's the singular mission for EVP: Find nonvoting environmentalists and peer pressure them to vote. The nonprofit doesn't endorse candidates, discuss policies, or even try to get people to care more about climate change and the environment. Other organizations already do that well, Stinnett says, and it's not an easy task.
"We live in a time when it's increasingly hard to change anyone's mind about anything," he says. "But finding people who already agree with you and getting them to take an action is much easier than changing people's minds. The idea that there is this large group of nonvoting people who are already environmentalists is great news. It's an enormous amount of latent political power."
The EVP is now "laser-focused" on this lower-hanging fruit. There are millions of self-identified environmentalists across the U.S. who are registered to vote and would like to vote more often, so it's just a matter of helping them close the gap.
"We simply get someone to promise to vote, then we remind them of that promise. That's a simple thing, but there's a lot of good, sophisticated behavioral science behind it," Stinnett says. "Almost all human beings, unless they're sociopaths, want to be known as honest, promise-keeping people. So if someone promises to vote and you remind them of that promise, they are dramatically more likely to actually vote."
The EVP is only three years old, but its efforts already seem to be paying off. For each election in which it has run robust mobilization campaigns, turnout among target environmentalists increased by 2.8 to 4.5 percent, Stinnett says. And in a year-long experiment, which tracked the same group of poorly voting environmentalists over four elections, targets voted at a 12.1 percent higher rate than the control group.
'Everybody starts paying attention'
The EVP's mission isn't to influence individual elections, Stinnett insists, but to spur long-term changes in the electorate itself. That's a lofty goal, although it may be easier to achieve than it sounds. This "silent green majority" is already out there and already registered to vote, and there is an evidence-based method for getting them to do it. On top of that, convincing someone to vote in just one election can pay dividends well into the future, even without any follow-up efforts from the EVP.
"When you get someone to vote for the first time, there are studies that show they're 47 percent more likely to vote in the next election. It's a sticky habit," Stinnett says. Some people may form a habit just because they felt good about voting, but Stinnett says public voter files likely play a role, too. "Part of why it becomes a sticky habit is that it only takes a month or two for their record of having voted to show up on voter files. Then anyone who runs a campaign for anything notices that."
It can be that easy for a registered voter to become a "likely voter" in the eyes of political campaigns, whose subsequent wooing can then sustain the voter's awareness and interest over time. "If you vote once, lots of people start paying attention," Stinnett says. "And if you vote twice, everybody starts paying attention."
In that sense, voting isn't just about picking one candidate or policy over another; it's also about helping influence who and what might appear on ballots in the future.
"A lot of people doubt that their one vote has any impact, and boy are they wrong. Not only could one vote change the outcome of an election, but because of these public voting records, just by voting and creating this record, you become a first-class citizen," Stinnett says. "You join the only group of citizens that politicians care about."
Stinnett acknowledges that not all elections are the same, but he argues he's playing a longer game.
"The average American will have three, four, sometimes five elections per year. And every election is an opportunity to turn a nonvoter into a voter for us," he says. "We truly are a year-round effort. I can tell you that on Nov. 7, we're going to get right back to work because some people have elections in December and January."