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Climate change will make more politicians into environmentalists

A thick blanket of smoke is seen against

A thick blanket of smoke is seen against the setting sun as young ragpickers search for reusable material at a garbage dump in New Delhi, India on Oct. 17, 2014. A groundbreaking agreement struck Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014, by the United States and China puts the world's two worst polluters on a faster track to curbing the heat-trapping gases blamed for global warming. Photo Credit: AP / Altaf Qadri

By the time the 2016 presidential election formally gets underway, pundits are likely to debate the climate change gap in the same breath as they argue over the gender gap.

Voters already have telegraphed elected officials that they need to take global warming seriously, because they do. Or face the consequences at the ballot booth if they don't.

Buried in an avalanche of election exit-poll data are these nuggets:

Voters, by 57 to 41 percent, believe global warming is serious. Think of this 16-point difference on whether global warming is a major problem as the climate change gap.

Voters divide sharply with the parties on global warming. Those who see global warming as a serious problem support Democrats, 70 to 29 percent. Those who don't think it is a serious issue support Republicans, 84 to 14 percent.

Voters in New York State -- a full 68 percent -- believe climate change is a serious problem. They supported Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo by 73 to 20 percent.

Why aren't Democrats more strongly pressing their electoral advantage on global warming? Alternatively, why aren't more suburban Republicans trying to claw back to a pro-green agenda? This timidity comes down to three factors.

First, Democrats got spoiled for years when environmental issues were settled with comfortable bipartisan support, as accompanied the extension of the Clean Air Act in 1990 under President George H. W. Bush. It became easy for Democrats to work with Republicans like Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford nationally and Govs. Nelson Rockefeller and George Pataki in New York, leading to significant environmental and political gains around clean air and water, wetlands and the pine barrens, for instance.

Second, when Republicans nationally began walking away from bipartisanship on environmental issues, as occurred when Vice President Dick Cheney facilitated the granting of unprecedented exemptions to the Clean Water and Drinking Act benefiting oil and gas companies, too many Democrats disengaged from battling on behalf of the environmental agenda regarding measures to combat the repercussions of climate change.

Third, both parties are misreading the polling data when they scoff at climate change. Proper reading of the data shows that global warming could be a key base retention issue for Democrats. For them to forgo nurturing the full political potential of a climate change agenda is political malpractice. Republicans, especially those from suburbs like Long Island, should be fearful of the political fallout from a superstorm that floods coastal communities.

To speak in the brass tacks of politics, when storm surges hit suburban communities -- like Long Island during superstorm Sandy, or the river communities in the Hudson Valley after Tropical Storm Irene -- that damage often cascades across affluent towns with many independent voters, the classic definition of bellwether communities.

Most scientists agree that weather events will increase in frequency and severity. A growing majority of voters want pragmatic solutions, reflecting not just commonsense compromise but purposeful results.

When events leave voters no choice but to connect the impact of superstorms to climate change, a steep political price will be paid for inaction.

That hasn't happened, but when it does, it will likely produce a Pearl Harbor moment. In the blink of an eye, yesterday's policy caution could be seen as political infamy.

Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Albany.

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