It’s impossible to argue that climate change is a politically polarized issue. There are some who don’t even believe that climate change is a real thing that’s happening, but conspiracy theorists are everywhere. Usually, that isn’t a concern. Now, however, we have a climate change denier in the White House, and that is an issue.
For most people, the issue isn’t climate change itself. The global records very clearly demonstrate a steady warming trend all over the world. Instead, most people disagree on the cause of climate change. Human activity is considered to be the leading cause of climate change, but many people have a hard time seeing that.
So how exactly did this happen? Why did America become so politically polarized over climate change? In reality, the fault lies with a lot of groups, but the ones that stand out are politicians, the media and scientists themselves.
In 2008, when McCain ran against Obama, Republicans and Democrats weren’t as divided as they are now. In fact, McCain actually came out as a stronger environmentalist than Obama. Since then, though, the Republican rhetoric has changed dramatically. Part of this is because the Republican base includes coal miners and Big Oil. Climate change means those two, coal and oil, will have to change.
The fossil fuel industry has argued mightily against climate change. They have the money, the lobbies and the territories to make a difference. Most of the fossil fuel industry is solidly stationed in Republican areas. They’ve worked hard to discredit the science behind climate change and flat-out lied about the effects policies would have.
The tactic has worked. It’s created a division between the propaganda and the facts — and because of the ever-widening divide between blue and red, it’s also become a mark of being a “good Republican.” There is an essence of tribalism in the political affiliations in the US.
That’s very clear when looking at the statistics. Only 16% of Republicans think climate scientists agree that humans caused climate change, versus 55% of Democrats. There are similar divides across the rest of the climate argument, such as what influences climate scientists, if they have ideas on stopping it, and whether they should be allowed to influence policy changes. Even 55% though is a worryingly small percentage.
Red vs. Blue
The Obama years were an interesting time. Many people, especially those on the right, decry the Obama administration as creating the chasm that now exists between political parties.
The truth is more complicated than placing all the blame on Obama, but it’s also not solely the fault of Republicans. Sure, a lot of the rhetoric they used, and still use, regarding climate change was bought and paid for. But Democrats became entirely focused on their own agenda and refuted a lot of compromises that could have eased tensions.
This wasn’t helped by different agencies that worked to undermine the research of government and private academics. Two had notable effects — the Competitive Enterprise Institute which included prominent clients from the fossil fuel industry, and Wei-Hock, aka Willie Soon, of the Harvard Smithsonian Institute. Unfortunately, because they used people with legitimate degrees, the science behind climate change was muddled and portrayed as fake and biased.
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Lastly, scientists also have to take some of the blame. For a long time, the scientific community has dealt mostly within itself. For the most part, scientists haven’t made communication with the public a priority —and that is where this fault has come from.
The general public has limited knowledge of how much information is available. The internet is relatively new, but since the European Union was formed after WWII, countries have shared information and scientific advancements. The breadth of knowledge available is astounding, but most of the public doesn’t know about it, know how to find it or even understand a lot of it.
Of course, most scientists are busy enough with their research. It probably never occurred to them the lengths the fossil fuel industry would go to discredit the research and maintain their industry. Once it became clear, some of the damage had already been done. The media is still doing it, as they seek to give both sides the “benefit of the doubt,” although one side has much more doubt than the other.
Honestly, there is blame all around. But in the past eight years, climate change went from a bipartisan issue to a sharply polarized one. Unless we can reach across the aisle and work together, we will continue to struggle to deal with climate change on a national level.