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Climate Change Ignored by Voters, Alum Says

Many climate activists felt that the environment received too little attention during this year’s presidential campaign. At a talk last Monday, Nathaniel Stinnett, the founder and CEO of the Environmental Voter Project (EVP) and BC Law ’05, said that might be because only 2 percent of voters see climate change as an important issue that influences their vote. Thirty percent prioritized issues such as national security and the economy.

Stinnett was the keynote speaker at the Office of the Provost and Dean of Faculties third-annual “Advancing Research and Scholarship Day,” an event dedicated to showcasing faculty and student research at Boston College. Stinnett was the keynote speaker at the symposium, which focused this year on the environment and society.

Stinnett described the EVP as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization whose sole focus is to fix the environmental voter-turnout problem in the United States. The organization uses data analytics and behavioral science research to identify environmentalists who are not civically engaged and turns them into more consistent voters.

“When you poll likely voters in any election with respect to the issues they most care about, climate change and other environmental issues are almost always at the bottom,” Stinnett said. “This has an enormous impact on how policy is made at every level.”

According to Stinnett, if likely voters don’t care about climate change, as the data indicates, it would be “malpractice” for political candidates to spend time and money from their campaign focusing on environmental concerns. This is one reason that climate change was rarely discussed during the presidential debates earlier this year.

“Our goal is to change the electorate. We don’t need to talk about the environment to get these people out to vote, but we just try to get them to change their voting habits.”

—Nathaniel Stinnett, CEO of the Environmental Voter Project


But Stinnett has discovered that while so few voters care about environmental issues, this does not mean Americans do not care about these concerns. The problem is that environmentalists are “awful” voters who disproportionately stay home on Election Day. Thus, the environmental voting block is really experiencing a turnout problem rather than a persuasion problem.

According to Stinnett, EVP identified 15.78 million voters concerned about the environment who did not participate in the 2014 midterm elections. In Massachusetts alone, it identified 277,250 of the same voters who did not participate in the 2014 gubernatorial race, which was decided by roughly 40,000 votes. For this reason, the EVP targets registered environmental voters who don’t usually make it to the polls rather than those with high turnout rates.

The EVP uses sophisticated data analytics to identify voters, which Stinnett believes is a strategy that helped Donald Trump win the presidential election. The organization relies on a method called predictive modeling to conduct its polls, assigning high scores to those voters who it deems likely to care about climate and environmental issues.

“Big data has completely revolutionized politics,” he said. “Campaigns don’t target large demographic groups anymore. They target individuals.”

The EVP’s polling methods reflect this shift toward the use of behavioral data in the analysis of voter patterns instead of demographic data. According to Stinnett, one characteristic of environmental voters is that a high percentage of them live in homes that no longer have a landline. Old stereotypes about environmental voters, such as that they only live in coastal enclaves, have also become less accurate in recent years.

Another concept that has been debunked in recent years is what is known as the rational choice theory, or the idea that citizens would vote if the burdens of voting were smaller than the expected benefit. EVP studies have shown that voters are actually more likely to participate in an election when turnout is higher, even though their vote statistically counts for less.

“Our goal is to change the electorate,” Stinnett said. “We don’t need to talk about the environment to get these people out to vote, but we just try to get them to change their voting habits.”

Featured Image by Michael Zuppone / Heights Editor

December 8, 2016