Why Is There a Partisan Divide On Climate Change?

National polls in the United States show a partisan divide on climate change, with more Democrats than Republicans believing that climate change is happening, that human beings are responsible, and that government should play an active role in reducing climate change and preventing catastrophic results. This is not to say that either party is exemplary or that all Republicans deny that climate change is a problem (two points to which we will return). Still, the differences between the two parties are remarkable; for example, nearly half of Democrats (47%) tell pollsters they are willing to join a campaign to convince elected officials to reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels, compared to only 20% of Republicans.

Why is there such a large difference? That is a deceptively simple question! There are countless books and articles about American political opinion (e.g., Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion), and even experts are likely to disagree.

Many of the current Republican candidates for President hold extreme views. Ted Cruz has compared his denial of climate change to the bravery of Galileo in advocating that the earth moves around the sun! Rick Santorum doesn’t believe that the science of climate change “checks out,” and in 2012 he made a joke about the danger of excess carbon dioxide, saying “tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is.” Donald Trump has said, “I’m not a huge believer in the global warming phenomenon.” This astonishing litany can be extended many times over.

However, keep in mind that leaders of the G7, including heads of state in the U.S., Germany, and the United Kingdom, not long ago made false and overly optimistic claims about climate change. Or that James Hansen, a leading scientist on climate change, recently called Hillary Clinton’s plan to install vast amounts of solar power “just plain silly,” by which he meant that her plan was not sufficiently well matched to the size of the problem. Remember, too, that the issue of climate change was almost entirely missing in the 2012 Presidential campaign, when reporters asked few if any questions about that topic and the candidates, including President Obama, did not volunteer to discuss the issue. In short, there are far too few climate change angels in either political party.

Nonetheless, why have Republicans as a group been so much more willing than Democrats to dismiss climate change as not real, or simply a natural phenomenon, or merely a distant problem? Here I suggest five important reasons based on psychology, and three other reasons based on politics. (These reasons are not meant to be exhaustive.)

Psychology

All of the psychological barriers discussed on this blog, such as judging something based on emotional stimuli rather than careful analysis, apply to members of any political party. But some barriers seem especially applicable to Republicans vis-à-vis climate change. People often see what they expect to see, and thus interpret facts and observations in ways that support their preconceptions (a phenomenon called confirmation bias).

Market fundamentalism. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, who have authored two books about climate change, believe that extreme market fundamentalism is perhaps the major barrier preventing more decisive action on climate change. “The markets will take care of it” is a mantra for many more Republicans than Democrats. Apparently Republicans think that is true even though pollution from excess carbon is not properly priced, perhaps believing that technology will somehow save the day (if, in fact, they believe that excess CO2 is causing climate change).

Suspicion of government. In 1981, Ronald Reagan famously declared in his inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Distrust of government has probably grown greater since that time. Republicans, more than Democrats, believe in a smaller government, especially a smaller federal government. Republicans are loath to give additional regulatory power related to energy and climate to the President or federal agencies, and that attitude seems to bias their analysis of climate change.

Religion. Evangelical Christians, who often vote Republican, are much less likely to believe in anthropogenic climate change than other Christians or the population at large. One survey found that 62% of evangelicals say they are “not very” or “not at all” worried about climate change, and only 41% believe global warming is caused by human activity, compared to 69% of Democrats. Apparently many evangelical Christians believe that God would not allow human beings to destroy earth’s environment, or would save humans if the environment were at risk. For example, Republican Senator James Inhofe has said, “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.” (But presumably evangelicals don’t want their children to ingest mercury, lead or arsenic, understanding that those substances cause harm; yet God could cure a child’s health problems in the blink of an eye. Go figure!)

Anti-science, anti-expert. A decade ago author Chris Mooney wrote an excellent book called The Republican War on Science documenting the many scientific issues on which elected Republicans fought, censored, or de-funded expert opinion. Federally-funded research in the social sciences has been one of the special targets of Republican ire, who distrust many experts and who are likely to further inflame distrust among voters already skeptical about most American institutions. Evolution is another area in which many Republicans (including at least one Presidential candidate) don’t believe scientists. An extreme case is Republican Senator James Inhofe, who has said, “The reason that I am not impressed with Science or Scientists is because the Lord Almighty can overcome all these so-called facts in the blink of an eye.” This statement is reminiscent of the official in the George W. Bush administration who said that the interviewer lived in a “reality-based community” but “that’s not the way the world really works anymore” because “when we [the Republican White House on behalf of America] act we create our own reality.”

Following misguided opinion leaders. People’s judgments are often influenced more by those they know and/or trust than by certified experts. Many more rank-and-file Republicans than Democrats pay attention to commentators who are skeptical but ill-informed about climate change, including conservative television and radio hosts. As another example, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal has been extreme and ill-informed on the issue of climate change, lending support to skeptics. Also, many leading Republicans in Congress come from states heavily dependent on revenue from fossil fuels and their opinions are tilted against climate change; e.g., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell frames climate change not as a matter of preserving the environment but as a “war against coal.”

Politics

When we consider politics and climate change we must add additional barriers, above and beyond psychology.

Structural problems. Voters in Republican primaries are more conservative than other Republican voters. For that reason Presidential candidates pitch their messages to the so-called Republican base rather than to the average voter. Similarly, the U.S. House of Representatives is more conservative than all Republican voters, or than the American electorate as a whole, due in part to gerrymandered districts. In the Senate, low-population mineral-dependent states, such as Alaska or Wyoming, have the same number of Senators as California or New York and thus have disproportionate power.

Pent-up anger. The American electorate’s anger with government spills over into distrust and also careless thinking. Thus errors by Democrats unrelated to climate change, such as the failure to bring financial executives to trial after the recession while simultaneously bailing out the big banks, may undermine other ideas and policies voters associate with Democrats, including climate change.

Oil and gas money. According to Common Cause, campaign spending by fossil fuel interests “has silenced the debate on climate change.” Republican officials, they say, are afraid to discuss the issue. Looking ahead, the network of think tanks and PACs associated with the Koch brothers (wealthy conservatives in the fossil fuel business who object to increased regulations and who have funded pseudo-science that questions climate change) plan to spend nearly $900 million in the run-up to the 2016 elections. According to one source, even the Smithsonian Institution’s national museum exhibits related to climate change have been improperly influenced by Koch money. Already newspaper ads funded by the Koch brothers oppose the EPA’s proposed plan to limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by power plants.

Conclusion

Republicans’ core beliefs, such as wanting a smaller government, apparently lead them to be more dismissive than Democrats about climate change. Nonetheless, Republicans are not a monolithic group; e.g., nearly half of moderate and liberal Republicans believe climate change is caused primarily by humans, compared to 22% of conservative Republicans. Unfortunately, structural problems with the American political system, combined with huge amounts of money from fossil fuel interests (some fraction of which supports deliberate disinformation campaigns), skew the way that Republican members of Congress and GOP Presidential candidates vote and speak on the issue of climate change. Although a majority of Americans say they want the government to act on climate change (hoping, of course, that any such action won’t be expensive), structural problems make it almost impossible to pass new federal legislation to address the issue.

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