Water, Climate Change and the 2020 Election

A NextGen Blog post by Marianne Swan, State University of New York, Oneonta.

All Photos © Alison M. Jones.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts only student essays; sponsors a forum for its student contributors; and invites student proposals to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

A recent graduate of SUNY Oneonta, Marianne Swan is pursuing a career in the field of environmental sustainability with particular interest in food and water security. Read her earlier NWNL posts, New York’s Onondaga Lake and Environmental Personhood.

With this year’s Covid-19 pandemic and presidential election dominating recent headlines, it might seem like environmental issues have taken a backseat. On the contrary, a powerful bloc of voters has formed as Americans become more concerned with critical environmental issues. This blog post looks into how rising waters, environmental justice and climate change have each played a pivotal role in the 2020 election.

America’s Water Crisis

Access to safe water is a pressing US environmental issue. Over 2 million Americans live without running water, while another 1 million live in areas where water systems violate safety standards.[mfn]Worland, Justin[/mfn],[mfn]McGraw, George and Fox, Radhika[/mfn] In the US, residents in the 6 to 10 million homes that have lead service lines risk getting lead poisoning. In communities like Flint, Michigan; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Newark, New Jersey, the health of thousands of families is threatened by lead water pipes.[mfn]McCormick, Lindsay, Lovell, Samantha, and Neltner, Thomas[/mfn]

In the belief that safe water is a basic human right, Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international NGO, implores U.S. utility companies to stop shutting people’s water off when they can’t pay. HRW concluded that in Detroit, Michigan, there is a clear correlation between water shutoffs and Covid-19 spikes.[mfn]Klasing, Amanda[/mfn]

Sign from California’s Central Valley

Both presidential candidates have acknowledged public concern over America’s water quality. This October, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to modernize America’s water resources and infrastructure, while presidential candidate Joe Biden boldly declared at a Michigan rally that “what happened in Flint will never happen again, anywhere in America.”[mfn]United States Environmental Protection Agency[/mfn]

Climate Change

Over two-thirds of Biden supporters consider climate change as a major issue, versus a tenth of Trump supporters.[mfn]Deane, Claudia and Gramlich, John[/mfn] As well, most Americans support the expansion of renewable energy sources.[mfn]The Conservation Coalition and the Conservative Energy Network[/mfn],[mfn]Funk, Carl and Hefferon, Meg[/mfn] As candidate, Biden released a late-running ad that appealed to Americans concerned about climate change by bringing attention to Trump’s position on this issue.

When Trump ran for president in 2016, he was endorsed by the West Virginia Coal Association because he promised to revive the industry. His failure to do so resulted in many blue-collar coal workers looking to Biden this time around.[mfn]Natter, Ari and Wade, Will[/mfn] It seems that the coal industry cannot overcome the growing environmental movement away from the “dirtiest” fossil fuel.

Coal mined in West Virginia

While Trump accused Biden of wanting to “destroy” fossil fuel industries, Biden’s approach to tackling climate change was much more moderate than that of progressive Democrats like Bernie Sanders. Biden has reached out to major labor unions to get them on board with his climate change plan; and he pledges to invest resources in coal communities to help workers transition away from fossil fuels without hurting local economies.[mfn]Worland, Justin[/mfn]

While it seems that Trump lost support from coal workers this election, it’s likely that oil and gas communities will continue to support him. His 2020 campaign received over $2.5 million from major oil and gas industries. 

Environmental Justice

In the second Presidential Debate, the moderator’s question about environmental justice signaled increasing public concern over health threats that agricultural and fossil fuel pollution can have on America’s most vulnerable communities. Young voters, especially women and people of color, report they consider environmental justice as a major reason for supporting Biden in 2020. The momentum of these youth votes helped solidify climate change as a vital issue among Democrats.[mfn]Cohen, Ilana[/mfn]

Woman and child on the banks of New Jersey’s Raritan River

As a result, Indigenous support for Biden may have influenced this year’s “flip to blue” in both Wisconsin and Arizona.[mfn]Smith, Anna[/mfn] Indigenous Americans are more likely than any other demographic to lack access to safe water. They are also particularly vulnerable to Covid-19.[mfn]McGraw, George and Fox, Radhika[/mfn],[mfn]Wade, Lizzie[/mfn] Thus, on behalf of several Indigenous American tribes, Earthjustice is suing the Trump Administration for its blows to the Clean Water Act.[mfn]Earthjustice[/mfn]

Environmental Protections – Recent Environmental Actions

In recognition of the growing push for environmental protections, Trump recently created a “sub-cabinet” to oversee water quality and management. He also signed an executive order to support California Congressman, Kevin McCarthy’s plan to reduce carbon dioxide levels by planting a trillion trees.[mfn]Grandoni, Dino[/mfn]

However, despite his claim that he was the most “environmentally friendly president since Roosevelt,” Trump removed critical components of the Clean Water Act during his administration. These actions have left thousands of waterways vulnerable to pollution in the arid West, New England and states where fossil-fuel industries are prevalent.[mfn]Burger, Beth[/mfn] Thus, the advocacy organization Clean Water Action endorsed Biden in the 2020 election because of his commitment to environmental justice and clean water.

Rusted and abandoned oil-waste discharge pipes in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin

It’s increasingly difficult for Americans to ignore the effects of climate change. This was clear in this election as young and Indigenous Americans supported Biden’s call for climate action and improved environmental protections. Climate change has been firmly established as a “top-three issue” among Democrats; and 66% of Republicans want to see the federal government do more to tackle climate change.[mfn]Funk, Carl and Hefferon, Meg[/mfn] Additionally, the majority of registered voters agree that the U.S. should rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement.[mfn]Leiserowitz, Anthony, et al.[/mfn]

It remains to be seen whether or not the Biden Administration will take needed action to properly address climate change and other crucial environmental issues. However, this election clearly revealed the broad sweep of environmental concerns across America and its political divide. A powerful unity in calls for increased climate action is coalescing citizens country-wide on environmental issues.


Branch, John and Plumer, Brad. “Climate Disruption is Now Locked in. The Next Moves Will Be Crucial.” The New York Times, September 2020. Accessed November 11th, 2020 by MS. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/22/climate/climate-change-future.html

Burger, Beth. “Trump’s EPA Rewrote the Rules on Air, Water Energy. Now Voters Face a Choice on Climate Change Issues.” Chicago Sun-Times, October 2020. Accessed November 9th, 2020 by MS. https://chicago.suntimes.com/2020/10/29/21540339/trumps-epa-rewrote-the-rules-on-air-water-energy-now-voters-face-a-choice-on-climate-change-issues

Cohen, Ilana. “Young Voters, Motivated by Climate Change and Environmental Justice, Helped Propel Biden’s Campaign.” Inside Climate News, November 2020. Accessed November 9th, 2020 by MS. https://insideclimatenews.org/news/06112020/young-voters-climate-change-environmental-justice-joe-biden

Deane, Claudia and Gramlich, John. “2020 Election Reveals Two Broad Voting Coalitions Fundamentally at Odds.” Pew Research Center, November 2020. Accessed November 9th, 2020 by MS. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/11/06/2020-election-reveals-two-broad-voting-coalitions-fundamentally-at-odds/

Funk, Carl and Hefferon, Meg. “U.S. Public Views on Climate and Energy.” Pew Research Center, November 2019. Accessed November 10th, 2020 by MS. https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2019/11/25/u-s-public-views-on-climate-and-energy/

Grandoni, Dino. “The Energy 202: Trump’s Toughest Rebrand Yet? Being Seen As A ‘Great Environmentalist’.” The Washington Post, October 2020. Accessed November 9th, 2020 by MS. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/10/16/energy-202-trump-toughest-rebrand-yet-being-seen-great-environmentalist/

Klasing, Amanda. “US Structural Racism Shapes Access to Water During Covid-19.” Human Rights Watch, July 2020. Accessed November 9th, 2020 by MS. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/07/15/us-structural-racism-shapes-access-water-during-covid-19

Leiserowitz, Anthony, Maibach, Edward, Roser-Renouf, Connie, Rosenthal, Seth and Cutler, Matthew. “By More Than 5 to 1, Voters Say the U.S. Should Participate in the Paris Climate Agreement.” Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, April 2017. Accessed November 9th, 2020 by MS. https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/5-1-voters-say-u-s-participate-paris-climate-agreement/

McCormick, Lindsay, Lovell, Samantha, and Neltner, Thomas. “Grading the Nation: State Disclosure Policies for Lead Pipes.” Environmental Defense Fund, March 2017 (updated March 2019). Accessed November 10th, 2020 by MS. https://www.edf.org/sites/default/files/content/LSL-State-Disclosure-Report-Update0319.pdf

McGraw, George and Fox, Radhika. “Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States: A National Action Plan.” DigDeep and US Water Alliance, 2019. Accessed November 9th, 2020 by MS. http://uswateralliance.org/sites/uswateralliance.org/files/publications/Closing%20the%20Water%20Access%20Gap%20in%20the%20United%20States_DIGITAL.pdf

Natter, Ari and Wade, Will. “Trump Made a Promise to Save Coal in 2016. He Couldn’t Keep It.” Bloomberg Green, September 2020. Accessed November 10th, 2020 by MS. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-supporting-hydraulic-fracturing-technologies-protect-jobs-economic-opportunity-national-security/

Plumer, Brad and Popovich, Nadja. “What Voters in Battleground States Think About Climate Change.” The New York Times, November 2020. Accessed November 10th, 2020 by MS. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/11/01/climate/polls-what-voters-think-climate-global-warming.html

“President Trump Signs Executive Order on Modernizing America’s Water Resource Management and Water Infrastructure.” United States Environmental Protection Agency, October 2020. Accessed November 10th, 2020 by MS. https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/president-trump-signs-executive-order-modernizing-americas-water-resource-management

Smith, Anna. “How Indigenous Voters Swung the 2020 Election.” High COuntry News, November 2020. Accessed November 10th, 2020 by MS. https://www.hcn.org/articles/indigenous-affairs-how-indigenous-voters-swung-the-2020-election

“TCC/CEN Clean Energy & Climate National Survey.” The Conservation Coalition and the Conservative Energy Network, October 2020. Accessed November 11th, 2020 by MS. https://nwnl.files.wordpress.com/2020/11/a064b-tcccen-cleanenergy-climate-survey.pdf

“Tribes and Environmental Groups Sue Trump Administration to Preserve Clean Water Protections.” Earthjustice, September 2020. Accessed November 9th, 2020 by MS. https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections

Wade, Lizzie. “COVID-19 Data on Native Americans is ‘A National Disgrace.’ This Scientist is Fighting to Be Counted.” Science, September 2020. Accessed November 10th, 2020 by MS. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/09/covid-19-data-native-americans-national-disgrace-scientist-fighting-be-counted

Worland, Justin. “America’s Clean Water Crisis Goes Far Beyond Flint. There’s No Relief in Sight.” Time, February 2020. Accessed November 9th, 2020 by MS. https://time.com/longform/clean-water-access-united-states/

Worland, Justin. “How Joe Biden May Have Outmaneuvered Donald Trump on Energy, Climate, and the Economic Recovery.” Time, October 2020. Accessed November 9th, 2020 by MS. https://time.com/5905000/biden-trump-energy-climate/

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