Policy institute president talks political discourse on climate change

Media Credit: Ilena Peng | Staff Photographer

Neera Tanden, who previously held policy positions in two Democratic presidential administrations, said voters are increasingly choosing which way to cast their ballot based on climate issues.

The president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress discussed climate change and Congress at the School of Media and Public Affairs Thursday.

Neera Tanden, who had previously worked for former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s administrations as a policy expert, discussed the politics of climate change with SMPA Director Frank Sesno. About 50 people attended the event, which was hosted by the media and public affairs school and Planet Forward, an initiative created by Sesno to report on environment and sustainability issues.

Tanden said climate change has become an increasingly salient political issue as more Americans choose to vote based on their stance on climate issues. But she characterized the polarization in U.S. climate change discussions “relatively new,” as most other countries treat climate change as a bipartisan issue.

She said this polarization impedes the United States from actively addressing climate change, which she said is ultimately “setting the planet back.” Tanden added that this passivity means current policymakers are “relegating” the responsibility of tackling climate change to “our children.”

“We, at this moment in time, are better equipped to make the climate solutions we need to take on an economic win for the country, for your state, for your community and your family than ever before,” she said. “We have more evidence of that.”

She added that investing in the renewables industry “can both save the planet and improve our economy,” which runs contrary to the stereotype that clean energy is costly. She said politicians pushing for climate reform need to make it clear to voters that renewable energy sources can create jobs and benefit the economy.

Tanden added that political communication on climate change needs to take “human nature” into account, because negative discourse on climate crises can prompt inaction, as constituents increasingly view the issue as unsolvable.

“The more you make something sound like a disaster that there’s nothing to do anything about, you basically create a system where you have very negative information and there’s no plan of how to do it,” Tanden said. “You’re basically inviting people to shut down.”

She said voters in Florida – a swing state in presidential and statewide elections – have become more cognizant of climate change as an issue, which could impact voter decisions moving forward. Climate change has contributed to several consecutive strong hurricanes and invasive toxic algae blooms in Florida.

“A strong majority of voters in 2018 and in the last year has said that climate change is a real, big challenge for the state,” Tanden said.

Tanden did not comment on the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates but said the candidate will need to be resilient to President Donald Trump’s tendency to “polarize the debate and then nuclear bomb the Democratic nominee.”

“My guidance on electability is to think through who can take a punch and punch back,” she said. “Republicans attack Democrats. You have to be good at taking the attack and withstanding it.”

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