How Important Is Climate Change In the New Hampshire Primary?

WGBH News

With the New Hampshire primary less than a weak away, several Democratic presidential candidates turned their attention to climate issues at a student forum in Concord, N.H., on Wednesday.

But with so many topics on the minds of New Hampshire voters, what impact, if any, will climate change have on Tuesday's "first in the nation" primary?

It soon became clear that for students at the forum, climate issues are a top priority.

“I'm happy to see that so many candidates find this issue important enough to send either themselves or a delegate here to speak about their climate platforms,” said Clarice Perryman, who’s getting her Ph.D. at the University of New Hampshire’s natural resources and earth systems science program. “In particular, I feel like this issue hasn't gotten enough airtime in formal debates. And when it does, not all voices are heard.”

Even so, she said, the climate’s getting more attention than it has in prior campaigns.

“I think part of that is it's hard to ignore climate change on the backdrop of things like the large fires that have been in Australia and other really prominent natural disasters that have occurred since the last election,” Perryman said.

Last month, a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll found more New Hampshire voters listing climate change as their top priority over any other issue.

“The environment here is really a big part of the quality of life,” said sociology Professor Larry Hamilton of the University of New Hampshire. “I think anybody would tell you that.”

About 90 percent of Democratic voters in New Hampshire agree with the scientific consensus that humans are changing the climate, Hamilton said.

"Among Republicans, they are more likely to disagree with the science,” he said. “And that disagreement is a function of the strength of their party identification."

Just 26 percent of survey respondents who said they support President Donald Trump agree with the scientific consensus on climate change, while those supporting Republican and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld had a very different perspective.

"The Weld supporters were anchoring the high end of that particular question at 91 percent, agreeing that humans are changing climate," Hamilton said.

But it’s not clear that the climate positions of candidates in either party will actually make that much of a difference in the New Hampshire primary. Weld is polling in the single digits. And on the Democratic side, the candidates are all pretty much in agreement that climate change is a problem, and they have similar plans to address it.

"So I could picture that being a strong issue in the general [election],” Hamilton said. “As far as a primary goes, that would be really critical if a large number of those environmental voters were all sloshing in one direction, toward one candidate. And I'm not aware that that's happening at this point."

Nathaniel Stinnett, executive director of the Environmental Voter Project, said the fact that no single Democratic candidate stands out on the issue actually shows how important it’s become.

"It proves that there are so many climate voters who are now wielding so much power over the electorate that it has caused multiple candidates to move in a direction where they weren't two or four years ago," he said.

The Environmental Voter Project's goal is to get voters who prioritize the issue but don't usually vote to actually show up at the polls. Right now, Stinnett said, his group is texting, mailing and sending digital ads to nearly 60,000 non-voting environmentalists in New Hampshire. And he said those climate-focused votes do matter in the primary.

"There's a huge difference between which candidates are prioritizing this issue and stressing it as being of existential importance, and candidates who aren't,” Stinnett said. “And sometimes it's more qualitative aspects of the candidates like that that voters are attracted to."

And he said if those voters show up on Tuesday, they're more likely to vote in November — when it really matters.