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2020 Election: A Climate Change Primer

A guide to understanding a top issue for many voters

By Michael Smyer and Alan Emery
Next Avenue's 2020 Election Guide graphic

As the 2020 election cycle heats up, climate change has become a major election year issue for many voters. In fact, when Next Avenue asked its readers for the election issues that matter most to them, climate change was No. 1. And as the chart below shows, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that about half of registered voters said they’d vote for a candidate for public office because of his or her stance on global warming. CNN televised its climate change Town Halls with 10 Democratic presidential candidates on Sept. 4 and MSNBC will hold its version Thursday night, Sept. 19.

Climate Change
Credit: Adobe Stock
Chart showing beliefs in global warming by generation and political party
Source: Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Rosenthal, S., Kotcher, J., Ballew, M., Goldberg, M., Gustafson, A., & Bergquist, P. (2019). Politics & Global Warming, April 2019. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. DOI: 10.17605/OSF.IO/NBJGS.  Available here.

But many voters have questions about the topic: What are global warming and climate change? What can be done to reduce it? What are the limits to reducing global warming? What could the U.S. government do? What could businesses and employers do? What can individuals do? How much international cooperation is necessary? And what is the Paris Climate Agreement?

If world leaders agree to get to zero emissions by 2050, that will be a different future than if they decide to wait to 2080.

In this climate change primer, here are answers to those questions that can help you better assess what you hear from the presidential candidates about climate change:

What is global warming?

The sun warms the Earth at a constant rate; space cools the Earth. The cooling rate controls the temperature of the Earth. The rate of cooling depends on greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, which slow the rate of cooling. The more greenhouse gas, the slower the rate of cooling and the warmer the Earth gets. Thus, greenhouse gases control the temperature of the Earth and global warming. (National Geographic has an excellent report explaining the causes of global warming.)

As Robert Heinlein said, "Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get." In other words, climate is the average of weather over long periods of time, and climate change is the trend of the climate over long periods to get warmer or colder or wetter or dryer. The top reason climate change is not easy to predict is that people and businesses around the world are causing the change. (The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released in 2018, explains in great detail the impact of global warming and strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change.)

Because even scientists can’t predict what politicians and corporate leaders will do, they create “what-if” descriptions of a possible future. For example, if world leaders agree to get to zero emissions by 2050, that will be a different future than if they decide to wait until 2080.

Our Commitment to You This Election

This report is part of an ongoing series on the 2020 presidential election and other significant U.S. elections. Our goal at Next Avenue is to provide accurate, relevant and impartial reporting on the issues that matter most to older Americans. In the run-up to election day, we will report on the candidates, parties and issues so you can determine who best stands for your needs.

What could be done to reduce climate change?

Controlling the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere will control the temperature of the Earth. Almost all the recent greenhouse gas releases have been from human activities, including burning fossil fuels, using carbon-rich industrial products and poor agricultural and forestry practices.

Building alternative carbon-free or carbon-neutral energy sources to replace fossil fuels could reduce climate change.

We can also do things like replace carbon-rich concrete with materials like Hempcrete (a bio-composite material made of hemp hurds and lime); use other non-fossil fuels for smelting metal; practice no-till farming to build carbon in the soil and replace forests rather than clear-cutting them.

To make any of this possible, people need to be able to make choices. Switching from fossil fuels to electricity must be an option for transportation, heating, normal electrical needs and so on.

Are electric cars realistic? Yes, but only if the infrastructure for charging becomes widespread and inexpensive and if batteries continue to improve.

One of the largest disincentives to shift from fossil fuels are the enormous subsidies that almost all nations provide for the fossil fuel industry. An International Monetary Fund report pegged the total annual subsidies at about $5 trillion per year, or about 6.5% of the global GDP (gross domestic product). Among the G7 countries, the United States has the highest level of fossil fuel subsidies.

As the fossil fuel use declines, the need for subsidies will decline rapidly, too.

Is it too late to stop this train?

There are almost no technical limits to how much we could reduce global warming and how fast we could accomplish the transition.

The realistic limits are based primarily on the speed with which replacement energy and production processes, as well as agricultural and forestry practices, can be reversed. That, in turn, is based on the amount of money the world is willing to spend beyond what it can earn by making the transition.

The political and profit-based limits are currently a complete unknown, but the climate change projections based on business-as-usual appear frightening.

After reducing our excess emissions rate to zero, the next step would be reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases to a much lower level than today’s. That would require funding research.

How much could the U.S. government do to help, and what kinds of things?

There are several things the U.S. government could do:


It  could replace fossil fuel subsidies with subsidies to alternative energy projects, including those carried out by existing fossil fuel companies. Alternative energy sources include: wind, solar, nuclear, water (rivers, waves, tides, etc.), deep geothermal, hydrogen and synthetic fuels.

Also, the U.S. government could institute a fee-and-dividend system to further encourage carbon-free energy and products. This system would add a fee to all products manufactured by the use of fossil fuels or that emit carbon. This effectively would put a fee on carbon pollution. The money collected would be distributed to all U.S. citizens, in equal amounts, in monthly dividend checks. (A Massachusetts Institute of Technology report in 2018 explained how carbon taxes could make a significant dent in climate change.)

The government could add a fee to imported carbon-based products at the port of entry, which would encourage other countries to do the same. And it could begin to plan for sea-level retreat from critical areas as early as a decade from now. The inevitable sea-level rise in the next few decades will begin to cause serious loss of property and buildings in low lying coastal regions, as well as contaminating freshwater aquifers in major cities such as Miami.

Finally, the U.S. government could begin to plan for added infrastructure to integrate newcomers into our country — climate migrants who are forced to leave their countries because of changing climate patterns. A United Nations report on migration and climate change said future forecasts of "climate change induced migration" range from 25 million to 1 billion environmental migrants by 2050, with 200 million being the most widely cited estimate.

How much could U.S. employers do to address climate change, and what kinds of things?

U.S. employers could begin to think of climate change in two ways: as a challenge for making their business practices more sustainable and as a huge opportunity for economic growth. Major retailers like IKEA and Walmart have already announced efforts to adopt more sustainable business practices (including replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources).

Other employers are aware that in the transition away from fossil fuels, there will be trillions of dollars to be spent and made, as well as millions of jobs created. The transition will probably require an injection of cash to kick-start some alternative energy sources, conduct research and provide job training and retraining for jobs in the new, carbon-neutral economy.

The scale of needed investment could be comparable to the Marshall Plan, which cost the U.S. approximately $103 billion in today’s dollars, or the Apollo Program, which cost $288 billion in today’s dollars.

What is the Paris Climate Agreement and is the United States in or out of it?

The Paris Climate Agreement is the largest, most comprehensive agreement on climate change in history. In December 2015, 195 countries agreed to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and to work to keep it below 1.5 degrees Celsius. On Earth Day 2016, the nations of the world accepted the agreement. Since then, 189 nations (representing 99% of global emissions) have submitted their plans for keeping global warming below 2 degrees. Since climate change affects global health, poverty, hunger and national security, international agreements like the Paris agreement are crucial to implementing global solutions.

On June 1, 2017, President Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. Technically, no country can withdraw until four years after the agreement went into effect. That is the day after the U.S. Presidential elections in 2020. So for now, the U.S. is still in the agreement.

Even if the US federal government does withdraw, it is likely that state governments will send representatives to Paris Climate Agreement conferences, presenting their own plans and lobbying for solutions to global warming.

Are our leaders worried about climate change?

Most leaders at the local, state and federal level are worried about climate change. That is why more than 3,500 people, including mayors, governors, business and academic leaders are participating in We Are Still In, an organization that promises other world leaders that Americans won’t retreat from the Paris climate accords and the global effort to reduce emissions and stem the causes of climate change.

What can I do as a voter if I want to help combat climate change?

There are many actions you can take. Here are just a few:

  • Work with elected officials in your community.
  • Be informed about what your state legislature is doing regarding climate change and make your voice heard
  • Write letters, email or phone elected federal officials
  • Consult websites like and that have dozens of things individuals can do


Michael Smyer is an Encore Public Voices Fellow and a professor of psychology at Bucknell University.  Read More
Alan Emery is president of KIVU Nature, an environmental consultant based in Ontario, Canada. Read More
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