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Could Climate Change be the Epitome of Partisanship?

• October 26, 2012 • 12:05 PM

Why the environment has been so conspicuously absent from this year’s debates

It’s the issue that dare not speak its name – climate change. As the New York Times, NPR, the Associated Press and a host of pundits, including our Tom Jacobs, have noticed, talk of global warming has been banished from the hustings in this year’s U.S. presidential campaign. While both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney embrace talk about energy – whether from fossil fuels or renewable sources – with various amounts of gusto, the focus is always economic, not environmental.

Despite his muted voice this year, in years past Obama has been an ardent believer in anthropogenic climate change. Romney has said he accepts the idea that the planet is warming, and that people have played some part in the increase, but it’s never been a centerpiece of his platform. The environment is not among the 27 issues on his campaign website, although energy is, and his position has seen a rightward shift, as CBS News described it.

In a new paper in the journal American Behavioral Scientist, University of Vermont political scientist Deborah Lynn Guber argues that what once had been “politics of consensus” on environmental issues has taken a back seat, or perhaps another bus altogether, to partisanship.

Looking at three cross-sectional Gallup surveys from 1990, 2000, and 2010, Guber establishes not that there is an American ideological divide on the environment—that’s pretty well established—but how pervasive and increasingly intractable that divide has become in the general population. “Average Americans are now more polarized on the environment,” Guber writes, “than at any other point in time or than on any other topic of political relevance included within Gallup’s surveys.”

Note that we’re using the term “the environment,” and not “climate change” or “global warming.” Guber shows that since 1990 the public’s divided opinions on a host of environmental issues (their “personal worry,” to use Gallup’s determinant) have described similar curves, with climate change merely the most dramatic divergence. In 1990, there was near agreement on issues ranging from pollution, toxic contamination, loss of rain forests and climate change among self-described Republicans, Democrats and independents. (At the same time, a genuine ideological split has been observed in Congressional votes for at least four decades.)

But by 2010, the divide on all environmental issues, and especially climate change, was clear. Congress, in the meantime, reached new extremes of partisanship. And leading the way? Climate change. Looking at the Gallup data on a battery of questions asking about issues including health care affordability, illegal immigration, race relations, crime, and terrorism, the concern gap between Democrats and Republicans was greatest on climate change, followed by quality of environment. As Guber points out, only illegal immigration even came close to this deep a divide.

Democrats who said they understood the issue well were far more concerned than those who did not. For Republicans—and to some extent, for Independents as well—the reverse was true. Those who reported a good grasp of global warming were markedly less worried about its effects than those who knew comparatively little. It appears, then, that partisan polarization is not inherent in the issue itself but that it occurs through the acquisition of information. As respondents become familiar with the partisan cues that are cognitively associated with global warming, they retreat into opposing camps. This pattern, which also has been observed by others scholars using multiple data sets, suggests that the relationship between issue awareness, understanding, and concern is far more daunting and complex than climate communicators would like to believe.

Pondering these results, Guber suggests that new information—whether the electorate chooses to highlight the scientific consensus or the Climategate memos—is less important than is taking “cues from the elites they trusted most.” When Republican elites were given marching orders to emphasize uncertainty, the conservative masses presumably fell in line. Hence, writes Guber:

Although activists, such as former vice president Al Gore, have drawn media attention to the dangers of climate change, it is tempting to suggest that they have also emboldened the opposition and helped to politicize the issue in unintended and truly unhelpful ways.

More awareness and more education, when it’s ladled out by the enemy, will not result in more acceptance. The way forward for those who would combat climate change is fraught, which may help explain why neither Obama nor Romney sees an advantage here.

“Activists are increasingly divided as to whether to pursue partisan or bipartisan strategies,” Guber writes. “A partisan approach might articulate differences in policy that could be used as a wedge to attract some votes, but it would likely sacrifice others by triggering opposing predispositions. In contrast, a bipartisan plan might actively seek and find middle ground and yet lock advocates into a far slower and more incremental process of policy change.”

Of course, this year’s rambunctious summer and other extreme weather events may trump that glum assumption, turning an inconvenient truth into an inescapable one. A Pew Research Center for People & the Press poll from earlier this month found two-thirds of Americans accept the Earth is warming, although only two in five accept that people are a big part of the reason. Annual Pew polls taken since 2006 also show that around 2010, the third data set for Guber’s research, the public was particularly skeptical of climate claims. The rebound in acceptance since then has been greatest among Republicans: 35 percent accepted the existence of global warming in 2009, compared to 48 percent now. The current figure for Democrats is 85 percent.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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