There were just minutes left in the debate when moderator Kristen Welker asked for the candidates' attention.
“We’re running out of time,” she said. “So we’ve got to get on to climate change, please.”
The symbolism was hard to ignore for an issue that has struggled to get a full airing on the presidential debate stage. Scientists are clear that climate change is altering and will continue to alter the way people live. But in a year not short on immediate existential crises, how much does an ambient, protracted threat really matter to voters?
The answer, especially in Florida — vulnerable to sea level rise and global warming and also prone to narrow election margins — could be a lot.
Polls and surveys show that more voters, and particularly young, first-time voters, list climate among their top issues.
“For them, it seems to be all about climate change and race,” said Stephen Ansolabehere, a Harvard University government professor who has studied public opinion on the environment. “It’s pretty stunning.”
Some registration data suggest Florida has 3.5 million voters aged 18 to 34, with 1.1. million of them newly registered since 2016. But younger people generally vote at lower rates than older residents.
Meanwhile, more Floridians are worried about how the shifting natural environment could reshape their state. A spring climate resilience survey by Florida Atlantic University found that 89 percent of respondents accept that climate change is happening. The poll of about 1,300 residents also showed less than a third felt the government was doing enough to address it.
President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden present dramatically different approaches to climate policy.
Trump, who has previously dismissed the science behind climate change, said during the debate that renewable energy is not sufficient to support the country. Democrats' net-zero carbon emissions plan, he said, would be too expensive. He sought to paint Biden as an enemy of the oil industry, saying the former vice president’s policies will cut jobs in places like Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“I know more about wind than you do. It’s extremely expensive, kills all the birds,” the president said. “I love solar, but solar doesn’t quite have it yet ... to really run our big, beautiful factories.”
Biden said the country has a “moral obligation” on climate change. He vowed to invest in electric vehicle charging stations along highways. He said he would add jobs in renewable energy.
“Four more years of this man,” Biden said, referencing Trump, “will put us in a position where we’re going to be in real trouble.”
The candidates' supporters reflect their divergence. The Pew Research Center found 68 percent of Biden voters said climate change is “very important” to them, compared to 11 percent of Trump voters. A majority of respondents in Pew’s survey said the issue was at least “somewhat important” to their choice.
From sunny-day flooding on the East Coast to the drier conditions in California that contribute to bigger wildfires, environmentalists and political scientists say the effects of climate change are becoming harder for voters to ignore. Whether that’s enough to change the election is another question.
At the debate Thursday, the candidates talked about the coronavirus, economy, healthcare, national security and race before addressing climate.
Sharon Austin, a University of Florida professor who has studied African American politics, said people are more concerned with practical, daily issues — easy to see all around them.
“When you look at the news every day, you’re seeing how many people are dying of COVID,” Austin said. For Black voters, she said, racial justice will be a major motivator following months of protests.
Environmental advocates see a window, though, to turn the election against Trump. In 2016, he won Florida by about 113,000 votes, and the state has since held far closer races for governor and Senate.
The League of Conservation Voters has run ads here criticizing the president’s approach on climate, targeting swing voters. The Sunrise Movement, an organization of young people rallying around climate change, lists 15 chapters in Florida. And Biden’s campaign has embraced the party’s more progressive faction in creating a committee to build a climate platform with supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
State Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, the incumbent Miami Democrat and Biden supporter known for wearing rainboots in the Florida Capitol to raise concern about sea level rise, said he’s heard residents talk more about climate this election.
“For a state that has either been neutral or hostile to action on climate, one of the barometers of how far the electorate has moved is you find Republican leadership finally, finally wanting to talk about it,” Rodríguez said.
Another group, the Environmental Voter Project, has targeted 525,000 registered voters in Florida it considers likely to prioritize climate or the environment but who have not voted before, said founder Nathaniel Stinnett. About 75,000 of those have cast ballots this fall, he said.
The project doesn’t back specific candidates. In Florida, Stinnett said, younger voters are more likely to prioritize climate change. But he said older women also show a willingness to make it a key issue.
To get people to the polls, Stinnett’s team relies on peer pressure. Some voters may get text messages highlighting how many people on their block voted before while they sat out.
“The environmental movement doesn’t have a persuasion problem, we have a turnout problem,” Stinnett said. “There’s this enormous latent pool of political power in the climate movement in Florida.”
To motivate voters around the issue, UF’s Austin said, the candidates would need to talk more about it.
Thursday night, climate change got about 11 minutes on air.
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.