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Can climate change break the partisan logjam?

Don’t underestimate the power of a common enemy to splinter cynicism and rearrange alliances
May 17, 2024

Let the best of Anthropocene come to you.

The Guardian recently asked hundreds of authors and editors of the IPCC climate reports to share the most effective action for individuals to take in the fight against global warming. Their top suggestion beat going vegetarian, changing to electric heating, and even foregoing jet travel. It takes only minutes each year and costs absolutely nothing: voting for politicians who pledge strong climate measures.

But if voting is our sharpest tool against climate change, partisan politics risk blunting it. If you just listen to the rhetoric, you might think any real action is doomed. The Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for November’s presidential election has called climate change a “make-believe problem” and intends to eviscerate existing climate programs. But if you close your ears and open your eyes, you might see a different story. Renewable energy continues to surge ahead, for example, even in the reddest states.

Are we doomed to a boom-bust approach to this century’s biggest problem, or is climate change a powerful enough common enemy to get us fighting together? 

• • •

Yes. The Message Is Slowly Breaking Through.

1. Denial’s last gasp. Sally Friedman, a political science professor at the State University of New York argues that the climate divide is fading as science-literate younger voters replace older people. The 80% of young Republicans who believe that human activity is contributing to climate change have more in common with Democrats (95%) than they do with older conservatives (50%). And climate-concerned voters now outnumber those who don’t see climate change as important by nearly two to one.

2. You don’t need to believe in climate change to fight it. A recent global survey of over 50,000 people in 60 countries by researchers at New York University found that the more liberal the participants, the more they believed in climate change, and supported policies to tackle it. So far, so predictable. But there was a real surprise in the data, reported in Nature recently. When it came to taking a pro-climate action, in this case completing online tasks to plant real-world trees, political ideology had no effect. Conservatives planted just as many trees as liberals. This aligns with research from the University of Michigan last year, which found that all but the most negatively-focused voters are able to look beyond party lines. “A strong ‘Republican’ identity can coexist with support for measures such as increased fossil fuel taxes,” said one researcher.

3. When ideology goes up against economics, economics wins. So despite the current Republican Texas governor’s vow to remove financial incentives from renewables, the state leads the US in wind power production, and is second in solar only to California. Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma aren’t far behind. A combination of favorable geographies, deregulated energy markets, and federal subsidies means that renewables are a no-brainer there. With the prices of wind and (particularly) solar still dropping, more red states could go green.

• • •

No. The Climate Gap Is Getting Larger.

1. House of unrepresentatives. America’s political infrastructure does not reflect the growing acceptance of the reality of climate change among its population. “Fossil fuel and related industries for decades have worked with the conservative movement to advance an anti-regulation storyline that has solidified Republican resistance to climate-change science and policy action,” write Megan Mullin of UCLA and Patrick Egan of NYU in their in-depth coverage of climate partisanship. A look at environmental voting records in the US House of Representatives over the past 15 years shows the upshot: the parties have never been farther apart on climate.

2. What tornado? There seems to be a fundamental disconnect between the way Republicans and Democrats view the world. Republican regions tend to be more rural and have much higher percentages of properties at risk from climate change-related flood, fire and heat, according to Mullin and Egan’s research. And yet a minority of Republicans (36%) say climate change is affecting their own community, compared to 85% of Democrats, Pew Research found. Incredibly, the two groups could not even agree on whether they had experienced extreme weather at all—58% of Republicans reported intense droughts, fires, or intense storms versus 79% of Democrats, even for those living in the same region.

3. The political price of problem-solving. John Curtis is a Republican representative who believes in climate change, founded the Conservative Climate Caucus, and just sponsored a successful bipartisan House bill to streamline advanced nuclear power. That track record isn’t helping him in the race to succeed Mitt Romney as the next senator of Utah—the state Republican Party just chose a small-city mayor endorsed by Trump. This thoughtful profile of Curtis by the Sierra Club explores the reasons why. It’s well worth a read.  

• • •

What To Keep An Eye On

1. The twisted psychology of visualizations. Charts like the one above showing American politicians in extreme opposition over climate could be part of the problem, if this fascinating research out of Georgia Tech is true. Researchers there found that data visualizations can induce social conformity and accelerate political polarization. Many viewers interpret the disparities as representing the normative attitudes of like-minded people, thus entrenching more extreme views. “Choosing to visualize partisan divisions can divide us further,” write the researchers.

2. Coal mines as canaries. Even as coal mining in the US continues its slide, some red states are considering keeping unprofitable mines open at public expense. News from Europe suggests another solution: a “just transition approach” that shutters mines but provides a generous package of support and investment in the affected communities. Using this approach, a left-wing party in Spain negotiated the closure of 28 mines in return for 250 million Euros in support—and then increased its share of the vote at the next election.

3. The “perception gap.” This term reflects the fact that people across the world and the political spectrum habitually underestimate levels of support for climate action. While nearly 70% of people think there should be more action on climate—and are even willing to give up 1% of their income to help—they think few of their compatriots are willing to do the same, estimating support at around half the actual level.

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