Climate Takes a Back Seat in High-Profile California Primary Campaigns. One Candidate Aims to Change That

You’ve probably never heard of Joby Bernstein. Judging by the polls, many in the Silicon Valley district he’s running in haven’t heard of the 28-year-old Stanford University student either. Bernstein’s campaign is flying beneath the radar—just like the climate crisis he considers an existential threat to future generations.

For a state distinguished by passing ambitious measures to combat global warming, the issue has been conspicuously absent from its high-profile races. 

During the three debates for California’s most competitive race for the U.S. Senate in years, climate change was mentioned just a handful of times over the course of three and a half hours. Climate has not been a top issue for the Democratic challengers who could potentially flip the four Republican-held seats considered toss-ups by the nonpartisan elections tracker the Cook Report

And in the 16th district—where Bernstein and nearly a dozen other candidates are vying to replace Rep. Anna Eshoo, who is retiring after three decades in Congress—only Bernstein and two other candidates listed climate change as a top priority in response to a San Jose Spotlight poll.

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But when you talk to voters, it turns out they’re very concerned about climate change, said Bernstein, a former congressional staffer who’s finishing up a double masters in business and climate science. 

Bernstein, who’s running as a Democrat but has worked for Republicans, talked to more than 2,000 voters to obtain their signatures to get on the ballot, instead of paying a filing fee. He found that climate was the top issue for 65 percent of those voters, followed by education and immigration. 

“People in this district actually see climate as their key issue and something to vote on,” said Bernstein, a native New Yorker who moved to California six years ago, enthralled by its majestic redwoods and wildlands. 

Bernstein acknowledged that he spoke only to residents of Palo Alto, the home of Stanford. “But studies have shown that 8 in 10 voters in California list climate as a main issue,” he said.

In one of those studies, a 2023 survey from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, or PPIC, an overwhelming majority of likely voters said climate change played a role in recent extreme weather events and that it’s either their top or among their top concerns.

Yet when the policy institute surveyed Californians about their views on government in the run-up to this month’s primary, they cited the economy, homelessness and housing costs as their top concerns. Only 5 percent named climate change.

It’s not that climate change and climate policy aren’t salient issues for voters, said PPIC’s survey director Mark Baldassare, an expert on elections and voter behavior and former president of the nonprofit think tank. But when voters are asked to name the most important issue the governor and Legislature should work on, or the most important issue Californians are facing today, Baldassare said, “in the current election context, the economy, homelessness and housing affordability, and to some degree, crime and immigration come to mind more often.”

Baldassare said it’s unlikely that voters have forgotten about climate change. “I think what we’re hearing from the voters is what they’re hearing from the candidates and campaigns at this point,” he said. 

For California’s March 5 primary, Baldassare explained, the governor and Legislature cleared the ballot of other initiatives to focus on Proposition 1, a $6 billion bond championed by Gov. Newsom to build treatment facilities for people with mental health and substance abuse issues and provide affordable housing for those without shelter. One casualty of making homelessness a priority was a $15 billion climate bond, which lowered the profile of environment and climate issues, he said.

California is in the throes of a serious budget crunch—which the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office recently reported has grown from $58 billion to $73 billion—leading Gov. Newsom to cut tens of billions from his climate change plan. The bond measure was meant to help cover the costs of two bills designed to make California more resilient to a warming world, which has left communities across the state reeling from the devastating effects of extreme heat, droughts, floods and wildfires. Ultimately, observers say, the issue of homelessness emerged as the bigger priority for the governor and Legislature.

The leading Democratic Senate candidates meanwhile focused more on the Israel-Hamas conflict and who’s taking campaign contributions from whom, Baldassare said, rather than differentiating themselves through their climate and energy policies. 

Yet last winter, on the heels of a relentless series of powerful storms that caused catastrophic flooding, Baldassare found that nearly three-quarters of Californians said it’s necessary to take steps “right away” to counter the effects of climate change.

“Younger people have different priorities. And we’re just not being heard.”

Those numbers have been pretty constant over the years, Baldassare said. “But we’re not hearing a lot from the candidates and campaigns on what is an important issue for Californians.”

Bernstein sees the disconnect between what voters care about and what politicians are talking about as a generational divide. 

The average age of the Senate is 65 years old and the House, 58, Bernstein said. Younger generations care more about a sustainable climate, an education that doesn’t saddle them with decades of debt and an immigration policy that doesn’t kick out people who come here to study because they didn’t win a lottery, he said. 

“Younger people have different priorities,” he said. “And we’re just not being heard.”

He believes the changes younger generations want to see will require fundamental and urgent changes to key policies. And that will require a generational shift in Congress, he added, “because it’s not getting done right now.”

Although most voters Bernstein spoke to said climate is an important issue for them, his climate platform failed to gain traction across the district.

He knows it’s an even harder sell in most places across the country. 

But Bernstein sees that as a messaging problem, one he tried to finesse while doing policy research for Republican legislators, including Sen. Rob Portman from Ohio. “I think I’m the only person in my race who’s worked for both Democrats and Republicans,” he mused.

Republicans too often win at getting the messaging right, he said, even when their facts are wrong. As an example, there are more renewable energy jobs in this country than oil and gas jobs, he said, but oil and gas interests have made sure that fact hasn’t penetrated the electorate.

When Bernstein, who has a background in climate investing, worked with Democratic Utah state Rep. Joel Briscoe on a plan to create a green bank to fund clean energy improvements with public and private partners, he found that talking about saving the climate and natural resources didn’t resonate with Republicans. Far more successful, he said, was talking about tax benefits, innovation, jobs and the potential of a future renewable energy-powered economy that is no longer tied to energy costs.

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Although the effort didn’t pan out, it taught him the value of trying to work across the aisle to find common ground.

Climate is interwoven into everything from housing and transportation to health and jobs, he said. He’s working on finding ways to help voters across the country understand that connection at a gut level, like he has.

As a longtime wilderness lover, Bernstein watched in horror as wildfires destroyed his beloved redwoods in Yosemite and algae blooms choked alpine lakes around Lake Tahoe. He started losing sleep worrying about how little was being done to address the climate crisis. 

“We just don’t have time for another generation, another cycle, another year without action,” he said. “The time is now.”

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