Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.