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The excruciatingly short life of a non-partisan environmental policy

Before the Green New Deal had received widespread media coverage, the policy enjoyed majority support from members of both political parties, a new study suggests.
November 19, 2019

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From the current vantage point, the Green New Deal seems like the ultimate illustration of extreme political polarization in the United States: Democrats love it, Republicans hate it, thus it has always been, and never the twain shall meet. But in fact, the Green New Deal wasn’t initially a partisan policy, a study published yesterday in Nature Climate Change shows.

Climate change communication researchers from Yale and George Mason Universities conducted an online survey of 996 registered U.S. voters in early December 2018, before the Green New Deal rose to prominence. At that point, 82% of participants said they had heard nothing at all about it; only 17% had heard at least a little.

When the researchers described the Green New Deal’s aims and components – a transition to 100% renewable energy, support for green jobs and job-training, investments in sustainable technology research and infrastructure, and improved air and water quality – 81% of survey participants liked the idea.

In fact, the policy enjoyed majority support from members of both political parties: 92% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans said they supported the Green New Deal at least somewhat.

By early April 2019, a Green New Deal resolution had been introduced in Congress, the Senate had voted on it, and the topic had received lots of media attention. “This situation created a natural field experiment in which to study the emergence of partisan polarization,” the researchers write.

They conducted a second survey of a separate group of 1,097 registered voters. The proportion of participants who were unfamiliar with the policy had fallen by half since the first survey, to 41%, and the proportion who had heard at least a little about it tripled, to 59%.

Among those who had missed the memo, the Green New Deal still had bipartisan support: 85% of Republicans who had heard nothing at all about the policy at the time of the April survey expressed support for it, similar to the 89% of such Democrats who supported it.

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But overall, the Green New Deal had indeed become a partisan issue by the time of the April survey, largely because it was stunningly unpopular among the Republicans who had heard the most about it.  Only 4% of Republicans who had heard a lot about the Green New Deal by April supported it, while 96% of such Democrats approved.

“These data suggest that many Republicans support the aspirational goals of the GND in principle, but came to reject the GND after hearing more about it,” say the researchers.

So where were Republicans hearing so much about the Green New Deal? And what exactly were they hearing?

The answers, not surprisingly: Fox News, and nothing good.

Fox News covered the Green New Deal much more extensively than other networks, the researchers found. This may help explain why 38% of conservative Republicans but only 17% of liberal Democrats in the April survey reported they had heard a lot about it.

Fox’s Green New Deal coverage was highly negative, and it appears to have had an effect. “Among Republicans, Fox News viewing was a significant predictor of both familiarity with the GND and opposition to it,” the researchers write.

The study is part of a growing body of work suggesting that negative coverage in right-wing media drives political polarization on climate change, a phenomenon that has been dubbed the “Fox News effect.” But only about 35% of Republicans in the new study reported watching Fox News frequently – suggesting that those outside that group might be persuaded that not all Republicans oppose climate policy, the researchers say.

Source: Gustafson A. et al.The development of partisan polarization over the Green New Deal.” Nature Climate Change 2019.

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