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Trump on Earth is a podcast exploring the environment in the Trump era with deep analysis, clear information, and real talk from the critics, scientists and thinkers who know the issues. Hosted by reporters for The Allegheny Front and produced by Andy Kubis. Don't miss an episode, subscribe to the podcast.

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The economy, health care, and the COVID-19 pandemic are some of the most important issues for voters this year. But especially among Democrats, concern over climate change is growing.

For our podcast Trump on Earth, we look at what role climate change and other environmental issues could play in deciding the election. We check in with reporters in three major battleground states to find out.

Our guests are Alex Harris, a climate reporter with the Miami Herald; Susan Phillips who covers energy for WHYY and StateImpact Pennsylvania, and Lester Graham, a reporter with the Environment Report at Michigan Radio.

In Michigan, these issues have touched everyone from autoworkers to anglers. Pennsylvania has been the focus of the fracking debate. And in Florida, offshore drilling and sea-level rise has (in some ways) united both parties.

Listen to the full episode or read the transcript below:

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FLORIDA

In Florida, climate change is uniting people on both sides of the aisle, partly because the effects are being felt in real-time. We talk with Alex Harris is a climate reporter with the Miami Herald.

Climate Change

Julie Grant: Florida has 29 electoral votes. Trump took the state in 2016, but won by only one percentage point over Hillary Clinton. How important do you think the environment or climate change is to voters in Florida this time around? 

Alex Harris: That’s one of the billion-dollar questions this election cycle. There are a lot of issues that everyone on both sides are kind of pegging to say, is this going to sway enough voters? And with Florida being the huge swing state it is, there are a lot of niche issues like climate change that have drawn a lot of attention from both sides of the party.

In Florida, it’s hard to tell with climate change. I see a lot of energy about climate solutions and adaptation from younger voters. A recent poll that Florida Atlantic University did in February found that most people in Florida, 86 percent, understand that climate change is happening and that’s affecting their state. That includes 81 percent of Republicans; 91 percent of Democrats; 87 percent of independents. So it’s a well-understood issue for most of Florida. The difference is that not everyone agrees on the solutions or what needs to be done or it doesn’t top the plate for most people.

Julie Grant: I assume that’s much higher than your average state because Florida has so much coastline. Is that why? 

Alex Harris: Yeah, we are the most vulnerable state in the nation by many metrics: buildings at risk, people at risk, inches of coastline at risk. There’s a good study out from Yale that talks about how different regions react to climate change and understand the science and understand how it’s going to affect them.

“The conversation in Florida is much more adaptation focused, like how do we build a community that is safer for us to live in moving forward?”

Florida ranks considerably high even in some of the more rural red areas of the state because extreme heat is affecting us, mosquito-borne illness is already affecting parts of the inland of the state, and obviously sea-level rise is a very visible facet every fall in most parts of the coast.

Julie Grant: You’re saying despite all this, it doesn’t top the list for most people. Do we have any sense of where climate change and the environment rank in terms of importance for voters in Florida? 

Alex Harris: I haven’t seen any polls that talk about the importance of climate. I know it’s been growing for years. Republicans control the House of the Senate and the governor’s office in Florida, even though is a decidedly purple state, and the conversation on the Republican side of Florida has really changed from climate change isn’t real to climate change is happening, but it’s not affecting us, to okay it’s happening but how are we going to solve it without hurting the economy?

So really, we’ve seen a tremendous shift. Our most recent governor, Ron DeSantis, walked into office and appointed a chief resilience officer and talked about putting more money into planning. Of course, that’s a very agnostic adaptation. It talks a lot about are we going to give you money for infrastructure and not are we going to reduce carbon dioxide? But it is an issue that even some of the redder parts of the state are starting to care about. I don’t know if it ranks above the economy or health care or some of the key central issues that affect obviously everyone in the country. But it’s definitely growing in Florida. It’s a bigger issue here than it is, I would say, in most other states.

Offshore Drilling

Julie Grant: In 2018, President Trump rolled out this big plan to allow offshore drilling along nearly the entire Atlantic Coast, including Florida. But it sounds like that was not well received by voters in Florida. What happened there? 

Alex Harris: That is an incredibly controversial decision he made. It was so controversial that almost every Republican in Florida spoke out against it. Part of it is because people in the state value their environmental resources. But mostly it’s because that’s our tourism. That’s where our cruise ships go. It’s where our fishermen go. It’s a working coast. And we all saw what happened with the Gulf oil spill. It’s a very vivid image in memories for most Floridians.

Yes, Trump actually got himself a bunch of headlines, some press and some positive attention from voters when he came down here earlier this year and signed a bill that would extend the ban and the moratorium on offshore drilling in Florida, because that is universally popular. It’s a bipartisan thing. Nobody wants offshore drilling in Florida.

Julie Grant: Is this just a political move? Do people see through that or do you think the fact that he’s saying, hey, we’re not going to allow this offshore drilling is enough for a lot of people to say, OK? 

Alex Harris: The left-wing in Florida saw right through it and called it out as an election ploy to draw a little bit of positive environmental attention. They talked a lot about how he has a very terrible track record of getting rid of environmental protections at the federal level. And the moratorium he signed is not permanent. It could be reversed the day after the election. He didn’t put anything into law. He just did an executive order. So that was point of concern for a lot of environmentalists here. Even Republicans have talked about how they’d like to see some stronger protections on offshore drilling to really prevent it for good and not just at the whims of whoever is at the political reins.

Julie Grant: From what you said earlier, though, this isn’t necessarily an environmental issue as much as it is a business, tourism and industry concern. Do you see this as an environmental issue or as more of a business issue in Florida? 

Alex Harris:  I think it can be both. It’s the same issue viewed from two different lenses. The Republicans look at it as, ‘oh, we want to protect the quality of our water so that we continue fishing, so we continue cruising, so we can continue having gorgeous beaches to have tourists come to our hotels.’ And maybe Democrats look at it as saying, ‘yes, we want to have the diverse wildlife and pristine habitats that keep people coming back and that the residents can continue to enjoy for years.’

I think it’s very similar when you talk about water releases from the biggest lake in our state, Lake Okeechobee, that causes algae. It’s a bipartisan issue and an environmental crisis. It kills manatees, it kills fish, it clogs the water. Everybody is pretty much united on not wanting it to happen.

There are several environmental issues in Florida that really do cross both party lines. Offshore drilling is one of them. Green algae, red tide, some of these bigger, more dramatic environmental issues really do unite both parties.

Latino Voters and the Environment

Julie Grant: Let’s switch gears in 2016. A majority of the Latino voters in Florida supported Hillary Clinton, but Donald Trump only won the state by one percent. There’s some research out there that shows Latino voters are among the most concerned people in the country about climate change, more so than white voters.

What kind of difference do you think the Latino vote and especially people who are concerned about climate change within the Latino community, what difference might that make in the election in Florida? 

Alex Harris: I think that’s a good question, but a tricky one. In a lot of parts of the state, there’s an instinct among white pollsters to kind of flatten Latino community into ‘they all vote the same way’, which as any Floridian knows, that’s absolutely not true.

So there are obviously many subgroup populations. South Florida has a lot of Cuban Republicans and they are very conservative. They don’t really talk much about climate change and environmental issues. They talk a lot about fiscal conservatism. They talk a lot about immigration and this is not a concern for them.

“There are a lot of political organizations…going to communities where voting maybe isn’t a priority and trying to convince them that their vote matters because of climate change.”

But you go up to central Florida and you get Puerto Ricans who care a little bit more about the environment, obviously, because they saw what Hurricane Maria did their island. They care a lot about resiliency. They care a lot about how FEMA works, how that money gets distributed to people who need it. And they definitely lean a little bit more left.

And then there’s a hot fight between both parties for Venezuelans who do lean more red. And there’s only about 50,000 of them in the state of Florida. But 50,000 is enough to sway a margin, as we saw in 2000. But what’s very clear in Florida is that like every other state, brown and Black people definitely are taking the brunt of climate change. They’re really feeling the effects more than a lot of other populations are, even though they’ve done the least to make it happen. And so that’s definitely going to be an issue. If it’s not as much of an issue now, it could be one moving forward.

These are the populations that feel the most effects of extreme heat. They are the ones who maybe have to ride a bike to work or take a bus to work and sit in an unshaded bus shelter. And resilience issues that are pocketbook issues are really something that is starting to hit home for them.

Julie Grant: What do you mean by that, resilience issues that are pocketbook issues? 

Alex Harris: The way we talk about climate change in South Florida is not necessarily the same national way of ‘oh, this is an existential crisis. We need to talk about reducing carbon dioxide levels.’  The conversation in Florida is much more adaptation focused, like how do we build a community that is safer for us to live in moving forward? How do we raise our roads, install our pumps? How do we not gentrify people out of these more safe areas that we’re creating? And that really brings in the equity lens.

We talk a lot about Hispanic, Latino and Black populations and how investment will either make things more equal for them or increase the inequity in these communities. And that comes to how much does insurance cost? What kind of health effects are you feeling from extreme heat or mosquito-borne illnesses? Is your property value going down? Do you live in a low-lying community that floods a lot whenever it rains hard?

Julie Grant: It’s really interesting because I wonder how many people are making that connection to who they vote for for president this year. 

Alex Harris: There are a lot of progressive groups trying extremely hard to make that connection for people. They call it connecting the dots —  Catalyst Miami, The CLEO Institute, Legal of Conservation Voters.

There are a lot of political organizations that are specifically going to communities where voting maybe isn’t a priority for them and trying to convince them that their vote matters because of climate change and that climate change is an issue they should be considering when they vote. It’s still hard to breakthrough, though, because economic issues are their priority right now. But there is a concerted effort that I’ve seen make a difference in the last three or four years to convince these communities that climate change isn’t just a long term issue, it is a current issue that they could have sway in with their vote now.

PENNSYLVANIA

In Pennsylvania, President Trump has made fracking an issue, or at least tried to. The state is the nation’s number two producer of natural gas thanks to fracking. Susan Phillips covers energy for WHYY and StateImpact Pennsylvania.

Candidates’ Differences on Fossil Fuels

Reid Frazier: President Trump says Joe Biden would ban fracking. That’s not true. Biden has said he would not ban fracking. Can you just explain what Joe Biden does say about fracking? What is his stance? 

Susan Phillips: What he says is he wants to halt or stop all new oil and gas leases on federal land. There’s very very federal land in the state of Pennsylvania. Most fracking in Pennsylvania, if not 99.9 percent of fracking, happens on private or state-owned land. And a president cannot ban that. That would require an act of Congress.

Reid Frazier: But there is some difference in the two candidates in terms of maybe not banning fracking, but where they stand on fossil fuels more broadly and how they relate to climate change. How are they different? 

Susan Phillips: Yes, there is a significant difference between Trump and Biden when it comes to climate change. And as a result, fossil fuels. Trump essentially doesn’t take climate change seriously. He doesn’t have a plan to tackle climate change. He talks about planning a trillion trees. But that’s really not going to do what needs to be done to halt carbon emissions. He wants to go full force with fossil fuel development.

What Biden wants to do is get to zero emissions from the power sector by 2035. When we say power sector, that means the power plants that generate electricity. And he wants he gets a net zero by 2050 for the entire economy. To do those things, you would have to reduce significantly the amount of fossil fuels that we are using specifically to produce electricity. We would have to transition to wind and solar power rather than using coal, oil or natural gas.

Reid Frazier: That would probably impact the fracking business, especially in a state like Pennsylvania where natural gas and coal are big portions of where we get our electricity from. 

Susan Phillips: Exactly. In a broader policy sense, while he’s not in favor of banning fracking, the idea that you would use less natural gas to generate electricity could, in fact, reduce the amount of natural gas production that’s happening. Of course, that’s not taking into consideration the amount of natural gas that would be used to produce plastics. And they’re building a new cracker plant near Pittsburgh. But also the natural gas producers in the state are also exporting natural gas overseas. So there still seems to be a vibrant market for natural gas. And that’s why we’re still seeing pipeline projects getting put in the ground. We’re still seeing export plants.

Do Pennsylvanian’s Really Care About Fracking?

Reid Frazier: Fracking, I did a story on this as a reporter in the spring, it was kind of thought to be a wedge issue in Pennsylvania in the primary back when Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were calling for a ban. Why is Trump picking this issue right now? You’ve done some reporting on this

Susan Phillips: It’s not because the voters in Pennsylvania have this as a primary issue in the election. You talk to voters and all the polls suggest that the main issues are coronavirus, economy, and health care. So fracking is really way down at the bottom of the list even for those who have a direct stake in fracking, people who may work in the industry or may have leased their land to natural gas producers.

“I couldn’t find any voter who cared about fracking, whether they were for or agains. Nobody brought it up. Everybody brought up the economy, coronavirus and health care.”

But Trump is hammering it over and over and over again. Essentially, he’s trying to define himself and define Biden. ‘I’m for this. He’s against it.’ That’s what a wedge issue is. It’s sort of like very cut and dry. Rather than, you know, if he were to address his track record on the coronavirus, he may be going down a slippery slope because by all accounts, he’s done such a bad job tackling the coronavirus. And also he doesn’t have a health care plan. He has been talking about the economy and every chance he can get he throws fracking in there.

Reid Frazier: In Pennsylvania, the polls are basically split on fracking. Half the people are in favor, the other half are against. 

Susan Phillips: It’s more specific when you look at the rural and urban split, though.

Reid Frazier: Okay. Yeah, talk about that, because it’s like, well, what are you trying to do there? Are there people who would be voting for Biden but even if it’s a small percentage, I guess it could tip the election. What is the target for this message?

Susan Phillips: The target is the rural voters. It’s not that it’s not the urban folks in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. I think he realizes he’s not going to win those areas. What he wants is to get people from rural Pennsylvania who have a stake in fracking out to the polls and out to make sure they vote for him.

Reid Frazier: In your reporting, did you find this marginal voter who might go for Joe Biden, but for fracking?

Susan Phillips: No, I couldn’t find anyone who cared about fracking. I couldn’t find any voter who cared about fracking, whether they were for or against. I mean, if I asked them about it, they would talk about it. But if I asked them,’ what are your issues in the campaign,’ nobody brought it up. Everybody brought up the economy, coronavirus, and health care.

MICHIGAN 

Next up, we’re headed up north to the battleground state of Michigan. We’re talking with Lester Graham, a reporter with the Environment Report at Michigan Radio.

Water Issues

Julie Grant: Sixteen electoral votes are in play in Michigan. What are some of the environmental issues you see as potentially bringing voters to the polls and making a difference? 

Lester Graham: Well, Michigan is the Great Lakes State, right? We’re surrounded by four of the five Great Lakes. And so there’s a lot of concern about water, about air, loss of wetland protections. We’ve seen a lot of rollbacks by the U.S. EPA and the Department of Energy and that affects a lot of different levels of Michigan life.

Julie Grant: Are there things that you think might get voters to say, ‘hey, I want more environmental protection?’ And what does that mean in terms of how they might vote?

Lester Graham: I think everybody is occupied about what’s happening with the COVID pandemic first. So climate change and environmental protections, while really important to a number of people, that’s not really what they’re talking about at this point.

“In the rural areas…you almost never see a Biden sign, but you see all kinds of Trump signs and Trump flags…houses are decorated to the hilt with support for Donald Trump.”

However, environmentalists and environmental groups are really looking at some of these rollbacks and they’re appalled by it. The Trump administration is reversing nearly 100 environmental rules and that causes a lot of concern, especially when we’re seeing places like our neighboring state, Wisconsin, granting waivers to a power plant to allow more mercury to be emitted. And mercury is a toxic chemical that gets into the fish in the Great Lakes and then gets into us because we eat it.

Union Support

Julie Grant: You mentioned the COVID pandemic, but sort of the twin issue with that is the economy. So in Michigan, of course, I’m thinking about the auto industry.

President Trump has done what he thinks, and some of the car companies think, are good for the auto industry in fuel efficiency standards. Under President Obama, there was a requirement that new car, by a certain year, would have a mileage standard of 54.5 miles per gallon. And Trump has said, ‘no, we’re going to put that down to 40.’

So it’s kind of an interesting phenomenon there, because you have unions that used to support the Democratic candidate last time around in 2016, supported President Trump over Hillary Clinton. So how does this all look to you?

Lester Graham: Let’s start with the corporations themselves. We’ve got the big three automakers, GM, Fiat Chrysler and Ford. GM and Fiat Chrysler support these rollbacks of the fuel efficiency standards. Ford’s taking a different tack. They agree at Ford that they should back the stricter standards. They want California to be setting limits. It pushes the industry toward that goal of becoming more fuel efficient, less emissions, and knowing that it all has an impact on climate change. So that’s a split.

In 2016, the unions themselves didn’t necessarily support Trump, but the union membership did. I looked at the United Auto Workers, the strongest and most significant union in Michigan, and the UAW union is backing Joe Biden for president.

However, we’re wondering what will that mean among the union membership. Because as you rightly pointed out, in 2016, a lot of them went for Trump. And the question is, are we going to see that same percentage of union membership go into the Trump camp again this time? Or will they switch back and go where the union leadership would like them to go? And that’s to vote Democrat.

Cultural Divide

Lester Graham: Let me give you an illustration of what I’m seeing in Michigan. So I’m a wildlife photographer, among other things. I go out in the rural areas and try to photograph whatever I can find in the rural areas. You almost never see a Biden sign, but you see all kinds of Trump signs and Trump flags and some of these houses are decorated to the hilt with support for Donald Trump. Then you get back into just about any town and almost all you see are Biden signs. It’s all blue signs. It’s very interesting to see that these two cultures are so separated. I never thought about it being that simple, rural versus city.

Julie Grant: Any predictions on what may happen?

Lester Graham: I’m like everybody else. I’m looking at the polls and trying to figure out if they’re good. The polls are going to be any better than they were in 2016, especially looking at those state polls, because those are the ones that count in Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania.

We want to know where those three states are going because they’re going to be significant in this election. At this point, it looks like Biden leads by seven, eight, sometimes double-digit points, depending on the poll. But again, in the polling in 2016, Hillary Clinton was leading by three and five points and then lost those states.

We can’t predict safely who is going to win. I’d like to say we’ll find out on November 3rd. I don’t think we’ll know November 3rd. It might be November 6th or later before that happens and I think people are going to get pretty agitated about that delay for sure.