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Manchin’s Climate Pivot Is Smart Politics

While voters may not rank climate as highly as the economy among a list of concerns, Mildenberger doesn’t think that’s the most important metric. Asking about where climate lands in a ranked list, Mildenberger notes, obscures how popular climate policy can be when it is paired with improvements to working-class people’s lives, like affordable housing or increases to the minimum wage. That’s an increasingly significant tactic of the climate movement, popularized in recent years by the Green New Deal and its many state and municipal progeny. Mildenberger’s research finds such “bundling” increases support for climate measures significantly, especially among voters of color. Such research completely unravels the idea that public opinion on climate should be considered in a policy vacuum, apart from so-called “economic” issues, or that climate should ever be sacrificed in favor of other issues. Manchin may be late to this but—this week, at least—he’s right to talk about fixing the climate and inflation all at once.

Nor is it true that voters get distracted from climate issues when they’re enduring a different sort of crisis, like the Covid-19 pandemic, for example. Mildenberger and his colleagues found, in a paper published just this month by Cambridge University Press, that measures to combat Covid-19 were more popular when they were integrated with climate action, and that, indeed, drawing an analogy between the two crises increased respondents’ concern about climate change. An unrelated team of researchers, in 2020, studied the Finite Pool of Worry hypothesisthe idea that the public can only worry about a few problems at a time—and found that there was no evidence for it (if this wasn’t true in 2020, with Trump still in office and daily life impossible almost everywhere due to a pandemic, it’s hard to imagine when it would be). Indeed, another survey, taken at the worst point of the pandemic, found that two-thirds of Americans thought the government should do more to address climate change. While it was true that the public followed news about climate less closely when the pandemic was at its worse, worry about climate did not decrease. Instead, being personally affected by Covid-19 was associated with more, not less, concern over climate.

Of course, inflation does loom larger in most people’s minds than any other issue. Manchin and Schumer are right to name their bill after it. We are reminded of high prices every time we go to the store and shop for dinner. Even when inflation shows signs of easing, the media is always there to stir up worry, and we’re vulnerable, because consumption is so embedded in our daily lives. For many people, inflation imposes genuinely alarming new financial stresses. For others, it’s more of a psychic injury. Getting a new job might help our household budget more than high gas prices hurt, but we see the gas prices every day and get mad anyway (behavioral economists use the phrase “the pain of paying” to describe how the indignation we feel in the act paying for something can outweigh the material hardship of its expense. This explains why many of us get madder about gas prices than about the cost of college tuition or healthcare – we pay for gas more frequently.). And of course, Covid-19 preoccupied us when we couldn’t see our grandparents or send our kids to school. But what research finds is that we can and do worry about more than one thing, and that most voters value solutions to the climate crisis no matter how many other problems we are juggling.

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