Students and community members gathered to protest climate change and lack of policy as part of a bigger movement started by Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg. (Photo/Rebecca Wright)

The environment has been undergoing slow changes that threaten both the country and the world because of human actions. Despite the danger, we have not taken the steps we need to address climate change.

The 2020 election cycle offers the United States a chance to reexamine our environmental and climate change policies.

Though the election is a long way off, we should start asking candidates to lay out their climate change policies. In doing so, candidates can differentiate themselves from each other, and the different policies and stances will hopefully stimulate meaningful environmental discussion during the upcoming presidential debates.

J. Michael Martinez, a professor affiliated with the Department of Public Administration and Policy at the University of Georgia, believes that environmental issues have not gotten the attention they warrant.

“I definitely think environmental policy, particularly when with climate change, is important,” Martinez said. “But I agree that it has not gotten the attention it deserves.”

Some might point out that voters seem relatively uninterested. According to a Gallup poll, 53% of voters in the midterm viewed climate change as extremely or very important. Although that represents a slim majority of voters, voters cared more about every other issue except the Russia investigation.

However, the presidential candidates could increase the importance voters place on climate change and environmental policy by starting a dialogue. According to the Issue Ownership theory, political parties and politicians can make certain issues more salient to voters by taking ownership of them and highlighting their significance.

For example, voters often perceive the Republican Party as “tougher” on crime. To mobilize their voters, Republicans could emphasize why crime is an issue, thereby increasing the salience of crime. Similarly, if 2020 presidential candidates gave real attention to climate change, voters would likely pay more attention to climate change as well.

Moreover, the 2020 election feels like a prime opportunity to address climate change and the environment. Historically, voters have cared more about the environment in the aftermath of environmental crises.

“It’s sort of ironic. One of the best things that can happen to the environmental community is to have an environmental crisis,” Martinez said. “There are so many issues. There’s all so important. So what drives environmental issues to the top of the pile is when there’s an environmental problem.”

A quick glance at the history of environmental policy in the United States confirms Martinez’s claim. For example, after environmental tragedies at Love Canal and the Valley of the Drums, Congress created the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund, in 1980. CERCLA allows the EPA to clean up contaminated sites and forces polluting parties to perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA lead cleanup work.

Climate change, a slow process that is hard to notice in daily life, has failed to capture such attention. However, recent events like wildfires, flooding and drought may be showing voters the deadly effects climate change can have on communities.

Climate change is one of the biggest policy concerns that the United States will need to face. For too long, we as a country have effectively ignored the issue. In the 2020 election, and especially in debates leading up toward it, we must finally demand that politicians take a stand.

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