Solar Tribune

Are the 2020 Democratic Candidates Serious About Climate? Twitter Data Says No

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For clean energy and climate advocates, the Democratic challenger in the upcoming 2020 Presidential election is poised to present a more climate-focused candidate than the incumbent, President Donald Trump. But an analysis of the Twitter histories of the Democratic primary candidates presents a field that largely places climate lower on the list of top policy priorities.


At the end of June, the American people will get their first real look at the candidates running for the Democratic nomination. The eventual candidate’s opponent, President Trump, has scored notoriously low on any sort of climate change or clean energy metric: famously claiming climate change is a hoax purported by the Chinese, levying tariffs on imported solar panels, egregiously claiming noise from wind turbines cause cancer, and repeatedly seeking to bolster the coal generation industry, among other black marks.

Photo Source: CNN

Given these unfortunate climate stances from the incumbent, whoever faces Trump in 2020 will undeniably have a better track record when it comes to climate change and renewable energy. While choosing this eventual candidate over the President responsible for pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement would seem to be a straightforward choice for any voter who places the climate as their top policy issue, looking ahead to 2020 is premature. Instead, the climate voting bloc should be parsing through the nearly two dozen Democratic candidates to determine which would do the most to actually prioritize climate change during the 2020 race and if they’re elected to office. Having a challenger in 2020 who looks good on climate simply by comparison with President Trump is not enough, and clean energy advocates and climate fighters should be pushing for the candidates that have demonstrated a real commitment to action in these areas.

How can electors parse through the typical political speech to actually determine which candidate best represents their views and priorities? For candidates with a political history, tracing their words and actions is one such pathway. But the issue with this approach can be that this early in the primary, candidates are trying to cast a wide net to win support and gain momentum. Voters need to wade through the vast amount of talk to find the real meat of what matters to candidates compared with what issues are simply being offered more hollow lip service.

To aid in this process of approaching the candidates in the Democratic primary with an educated and judicious eye, Solar Tribune is rolling out a series of articles to evaluate:

  1. How high climate change and clean energy ranks as a policy issue for a candidate compared with other issues
  2. The substance of the climate-related policy planks that candidates are proposing
  3. A qualitative rating of how aggressive those policy proposals are, both in time frame and in completeness, in anticipation of mitigating the worst consequences of climate change

This article will introduce the methodology of item 1, as well as a preview into those results. Later posts will dive into items 2 and 3 and then put them all together in a way that creates a three-dimensional view of each candidate’s climate profile. So, stay tuned to this space to see more as Solar Tribune continues to develop the 2020 Climate Profiles to inform voters, as well as updates them as the field of candidates changes and their positions evolve during the course of primary season.

Methodology

For this first item, evaluating where climate change and energy rank in terms of priority for each candidate, we’re taking an entirely quantitative approach. A reasonable proxy for how important a given issue is to a candidate is to evaluate how often they talk about the issue when compared with other issues. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on your view), we live in a world where social media is paramount and candidates recognize the importance of having their positions and policy proposals posted online in short and punchy ways. Twitter, in particular, has become a key communication tool for any potential candidates.

As such, Solar Tribune’s 2020 Climate Profiles will take a snapshot of each candidate’s Twitter history to evaluate how often climate change and/or clean energy are mentioned compared with other policy issues. We’ve identified seven major topic issues that are likely to take center stage during the 2020 Presidential Election and evaluated how often each of those issues are mentioned on a candidate’s profile to create a rank of how high that issue appears to be in the mind and  public position of the candidates. To do this, we’ve assigned a handful of keywords to each of those policy areas and pulled a Google query for those terms on the candidate’s official Twitter profile. These seven policy areas and their keywords are displayed in the table below:

Based on the frequency with which each candidate Tweets about climate change keywords compared with the other six policy areas, we’ll assign them a score from 1 (highest priority) to 7 (lowest priority).

This methodology of course isn’t perfect and has a couple holes that can be poked into it in terms of whether this is the best way to evaluate candidates, but those weaknesses can also be mostly mitigated or at least explained via caveat:

  • These Twitter queries pull the candidate’s whole Twitter history and does not reflect where they’ve stood in recent years, which is arguably more important to measure: While this argument can be made, the candidates that have prioritized climate change and clean energy for longer are more likely to be candidates who stand firmly in that corner, rather than having more recently adopted those positions in order to win favor of climate advocates.
  • These keywords are just indicating if an issue was brought up, not if they actually include a helpful position: Another true point, and even President Trump’s Twitter history bashing renewables would count more positively via this metric. However, the strength and effectiveness of a candidates’ positions will be measured and taken into account in the two other measures of Solar Tribune’s 2020 Climate Profiles, so this ranking still works as one component towards that.
  • Twitter is not an authoritative representation of all candidates’ positions: While actions do indeed speak louder than words, using social media mentions allows for an even playing field for all candidates and in an easy ‘apples-to-apples’ type comparison.
  • Speeches are more important that Twitter posts: Candidates might be more careful and crafted in their longform speeches, but the world of short attention spans and soundbite news clips means candidates know that the brevity of Twitter will lead to it potentially reaching the most voters. Just because of how social media is sometimes used does not undercut the importance that candidates see in what they Tweet about
  • The keywords used are incomplete and could be not totally representative: This issue is a true one, but identifying an equal number of keywords among each of the policy areas is the most even way to evaluate the large number of candidates, save for reading through each Tweet individually.
  • Ranking these policy areas against each other unfairly ‘punishes’ candidates for caring about other important issues: The goal of this process is not to say that climate change is the only issue that matters or to diminish the importance of the other policy areas. Rather, the goal here is to provide an accessible measure and tool for the growing voting population that ranks climate change as their most important issue when it comes to choosing a candidate.

With that all said, let’s get to the results…

Data and Conclusions

Because candidates will continue to Tweet all the time, it’s important to note first that the data for this analysis is all accurate as of June 4, 2019. These relative numbers will likely change at least in some small way as the candidates continue down the campaign trail, so Solar Tribune can update these numbers as the weeks carry on.

After pulling the data from the Twitter feeds of each of the 23 Democrats currently running, we get the full set of data that you can view on this Google Doc.

Visualizing that data provides the following for where each of the 23 candidates prioritize climate change among the seven policy areas.

Both ends of this graph are notable for the climate advocates determining who to support during the primaries. Inslee is far and away the candidate who appears to prioritize climate change as an issue the most, a conclusion that comes as no surprise to anyone who’s followed his career as Governor of Washington state and his presidential campaign. While his current polling numbers aren’t overly compelling, sitting below 1% according to RealClear Politics, one of the main goals of party primaries is not just for candidates who think they are likely to win to run but also for candidates who want to pull the eventual candidate towards a policy area that is important to them. Governor Inslee has given no indication that he is running for any reason other than to win the nomination, but climate advocates can and should consider it a win if his presence and bringing climate change into the main conversation for his fellow candidates ends up shifting the 2020 Democratic platform towards immediate and drastic climate action.

Photo Source: NPR.org

On the other end, for the party that typically caters more to the energy and climate crowds, it’s surprising to see just how many candidates have climate fall in the bottom three of their Twitter keyword mentions, including such strongly polling candidates as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg. This ranking of priorities could be seen as a cause for concern to the climate voting bloc, though many candidates do still have plans and proposals to meet the type of clean energy transition that is needed to prevent climate change’s longest-lasting and most devastating effects. That’s where the balance of the Solar Tribune’s 2020 Climate Profiles will come into play.

A last notable nugget to take from this first graph is the perhaps surprising presence of Joe Biden higher than most of his fellow candidates. The current frontrunner has received a lot of backlash about his policies that have been deemed by many as not aggressive enough. In fact, Biden’s attempts to appeal more to centrists than advocates on climate change issues spurred the viral hashtag #NoMiddleGround to insist that playing it safe and catering to both sides was inherently against the climate movement. Again, though, the effectiveness or lack thereof of potential climate solutions proposed by candidates will ultimately be reflected in the rest of the 2020 Climate Profile criteria.

Photo Source: The Atlantic

To account for the disparity between how often different candidates actually use their Twitter accounts, the following graph also visualizes the percentage of all Tweets that are deemed related to climate, the percentage of all policy-related Tweets (i.e., the ones who included keywords from one of the seven policy areas) are related to climate, and the total number of climate Tweets:

Visualizing the data in this way really drives home how much further ahead of the pack Inslee is when compared with his fellow candidates. Additionally, it provides some more context to the surprising candidates that had climate lower on their policy priority list. In particular, while climate ranked lower than other policy issues for Sanders and Harris, this graphic shows that they’re still not slouching and have Tweeted about the issue hundreds of times. Even though they’ve Tweeted about the other issues more, it provides some home that perhaps they’re still committed– but the substance of their proposed actions will have to make it up for them to score higher in the final candidate climate rankings.

Photo Source: Philly.com, Burlington Free Press

Stay tuned in this space in the coming weeks, as Solar Tribune will begin profiling individual Democratic Candidates using the criteria spelled out in each of the three dimensions of the 2020 Climate Profiles.

 

Cover Photo Source: Vox.com

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