Swing voters can decide public opinion on climate change land use

The Saint ReportEnergy, Environmental Planning, NIMBY, saintblog, Uncategorized, Wind PowerLeave a Comment

By Jay Vincent,
Senior Vice President, Energy, The Saint Consulting Group

independent_voterAs we’ve stated several times before (but it always merits repeating), overall public opinion about one particular type of industry doesn’t necessarily translate to the same level of support for a specific project on a particular site in towns and cities across America.  Wind turbines, natural gas-fired facilities, biomass plants – you name it – have all had their share of problems, regardless of the general public’s opinion about their particular brand of energy generation.  The public’s opinion as stated on the phone to a pollster and unmotivated by any NIMBY emotions about that use going in across the street can be deceiving.

Someone asked me the other day whether I thought the recent media coverage of the climate scientists’ email controversy (see Treehugger blog for a summary) would change much in terms of support for ‘clean energy’ projects.  Given the very parochial nature of support and opposition motivations for these projects in communities, the short answer is “no.”  However, I never resist an opportunity to talk about the power of the silent majority in land use and that many times the swing votes on controversial projects are locked in by the entry of voters and residents who don’t have an entrenched stake in the game.  When trying to get to ’50 plus one’ on a land use vote, similar to highly contested political campaigns, most people know who their base is and if they’ll vote.  The question is, how will independent-minded, undecided voters act on the issue or election?  Or in land use cases, what do they think of my project and will they pressure local officials to approve or deny it?

In the climate change debate, the Washington Post recently ran another poll that solidified that the debate around global warming and climate change has become very partisan.

With a majority of all respondents believing some climate change is happening, Democrats beliefs are stronger and Republicans are more skeptical.  The farther left and right you are the stronger your feelings.  Recent debate and coverage of the energy bill (plus a lot of paid media) in Congress has somewhat impacted overall public opinion.  For local projects, that means that there are those that carry their partisanship and hard-held philosophical beliefs into township battles, but more so as a base of support to start organizing others with.  In tough cases, they’re countered by their counterparts on the other side of the aisle or energy debate.  You also still need them to motivate the various Democratic and Republican political caucuses on local boards and commissions in town that need those voters in a primary challenge and general election.  However, unattached and silent voters in town can turn a majority vote for or against you. Thus, given there has been some movement within independents on climate change based on public debate and recent information on climate change, there could be impact within that local constituency in town, so long as their feelings aren’t being lead by the typical NIMBY land use concerns.

A quick review of partisanship and a scientific poll locally to check the pulse of the community can be useful in some areas of your project, but it’s not something that you should rely on to tell you who might show up at your public hearing.

So, in typical consultants’ speak, my answer to the original question is still ‘no,’ but ‘yes.’

Jay Vincent is senior vice president for energy for The Saint Consulting Group, email vincent@tscg.bz and phone  312.970.5770 Ext: 7502


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