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How climate change has reemerged on the campaign trail

Unlike the previous two presidential elections, this election has seen in increase in the prominence, and divisiveness, of climate change.

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Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the media at a news conference during the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen.

Henning Bagger/Reuters/File

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Marking a dramatic shift from the previous two presidential elections, climate change policy has become one of the major issues of this election, and the parties' environmental platforms have never been more sharply divisive.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has moved left and made renewable energy a central part of her platform, while Republican candidate Donald Trump has gone dramatically in the opposite direction, expressing skepticism about human-caused climate change and promising to deregulate the fossil fuel industry and to reject both the Paris climate accord and President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

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Yet what this election has revealed is not just bipartisanship, but splits within the parties themselves.

“The elevated conversation about climate change in this election is truly historic,” Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters, who addressed the Democratic convention on Thursday, told The New York Times. “In 2012, no one asked about it and the candidates didn’t talk about it. In 2008, the candidates were in the same place, so no one talked about it. They’ve never talked about it this much, and the contrast between candidates has never been sharper.”

Although climate change has long been an important issue for Democrats, in the past the topic was generally avoided because any proposed hike in energy prices would be too politically risky. However, Mr. Obama’s commitment to addressing climate change over the past eight years changed that mindset and helped push climate change to forefront of many liberal voters' minds in this election.

Yet it has not united the party.

Former secretary of State Clinton is pushing for increased use of renewable energy and an end to tax breaks for oil companies. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont pushed for a tax on carbon emissions or a ban on fracking, but failed to get these stipulations onto the party’s platform before withdrawing from the presidential race. Many of his supporters are skeptical about how far Clinton's commitment to climate change will reach.

“It’s a tough issue for both sides to talk about, but particularly for the left side to talk about,” David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College, told The Christian Science Monitor last month. “When you get down to the specific policies, especially policies like a carbon tax [that] impose costs on voters, then it becomes an uncomfortable topic.”

The Republican party has also been forced to re-frame the way it addresses climate change, discussing it more frequently in purely economic terms, without necessarily denying that it is occurring, as fewer Republicans are finding it possible to deny global warming all together. Mr. Trump has promised to deregulate the fossil fuel industry and return protected land to the public in order to return control to the people.

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“That’s sort of the Republican framing,” Geoffrey Skelley, a spokesman for the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told the Monitor in May.  “Some may believe there’s evidence of global warming, but does that mean we should spend government money to address this, or pay more in taxes? Probably not.”

A Gallup Poll released in March shows a dramatic nine percent increase in the number of people who attribute climate change to human causes, from 55 percent in 2015 to 64 percent in 2016. The increase has occurred across party lines, although still remains most significant in the Democratic party.

Several political strategists have remarked on how important the GOP’s climate change rhetoric will be for the future of the party, particularly when it comes to attracting Millennial voters, who recently surpassed baby boomers as the largest generation. Nearly three quarters of Americans ages 18 to 29 support stricter emissions limits of power plants, according to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center.

“It’s important for Republican candidates to talk about the issue intelligently and not be dismissive of climate change,” Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who worked for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, told The New York Times. “The way you talk about climate change sends a signal to millennials about how sensitive you are to the environment.”