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Americans’ polarization over climate is widening, and the facts don’t matter

REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
Positions on climate change — as with stances on “God, guns and gays” — have become cudgels for whacking the other side.

If you think it impossible for Americans to become more politically polarized over climate change, here’s some bad news from a fresh analysis of Gallup polling on the topic:

  • Despite a fair amount of progress since 2008 on national policies to address global warming, the gulf between Democrats and Republicans has widened appreciably and shows no signs of narrowing.
  • The gulf is even greater between the most committed partisans — very liberal Democrats and very conservative Republicans — which matters a lot because they vote in greater proportion and have more influence in candidate selection.
  • The gap has widened mostly in the rightward direction, with a hardening of Republicans’ positions of denial;  Democrats’ concern has grown, too, with increasingly dire reports about the pace of climate change and the price of ineffectual responses but this shift has been weaker.
  • There’s little hope of narrowing the gap with, say, factual information or even personal encounters with signals of a changing climate; both Republicans and Democrats wear their party affiliation as a badge of personal identity and social relationship, and attend only to new information if it fits their pre-existing views.
  • And views on climate change — as with stances on “God, guns and gays” — have become cudgels for whacking the other side, which means that the substantial numbers of  Republicans who favor progressive energy policies (even if for reasons other than climate concern) typically will not vote for Democrats who would enact them.

These are the key conclusions of a striking paper, lightly covered so far in mainstream media, that appeared at the end of August in the journal Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development (it caught my attention yesterday via David Roberts’ fine piece over at Vox).

The authors are two sociologists, Riley E. Dunlap of Oklahoma State University and Aaron M. McCright of Michigan State, assisted by one of Dunlap’s graduate students, Jerrod H. Yarosh.  

When hope seemed justified

Trends in Americans’ view of climate issues is a topic Dunlap and McCright have been tracking for some time, and they published a similar analysis a couple of months before the 2008 presidential election — a point that in retrospect, at least, seemed full of promise:

Al  Gore’s movie “An  Inconvenient Truth,” released in 2006 and published in book  form the following year, received considerable attention, and its message was buttressed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2007 Fourth Assessment Report proclaiming that the evidence for global warming was “unequivocal” and that it is “very likely” due to human activities. The impact of both was heightened in 2007 when “An Inconvenient Truth” won the  Academy Award for Best Documentary Film, and Gore and the IPCC  shared the Nobel Peace Prize. By the following year public concern about global  warming rose to levels not seen since the late 1990s — prior to 9/11 and the Bush Administration’s “war on terror.”

Political scientists Deborah Lynn Guber and Christopher J. Bosso capture the situation when stating, “The year 2007 — with its unlikely fusion of science, politics and old-fashioned Hollywood glamour — had seemed to mark a long-awaited tipping point for climate change,” a window of opportunity reinforced by growing corporate acceptance of the necessity of limiting greenhouse gas emissions and a multitude of climate action plans passed at the regional, state, and local levels. … And yet, two short years later, the pendulum had swung back with stunning speed and brutal force.”

To the standard explanations of how this happened — the massive and industry-bankrolled denial campaigns, the Obama administration’s initially go-slow approach, ineffectual efforts from environmental advocacy groups, the recession — Dunlap and McCright add the politically colored polarization of Americans’ attitudes on climate change and, not incidentally, a wide range of other environmental concerns.

One place this shows up, of course, is in the national legislature:

What was once a modest tendency for Congressional Republicans to be less pro-environmental than their Democratic counterparts has become a chasm — with Republicans taking near-unanimous anti-environmental stances on relevant legislation in recent years especially 2015.

Ratings by the League of Conservation Voters of Democrats and Republicans in Congress have diverged dramatically in recent years.

Another is public opinion, which drives the congressional posturing and also is driven by it. And there may be no better long-term measure of those trends than Gallup’s annual survey of Americans’ environmental attitudes — including six questions on climate change that have been asked since 1997. (Although, as noted here from time to time, other polls offer interesting contrasts and amplifications.)

Gallup respondents are asked if they feel the effects of global warming have already begun; if human activity has caused changes in Earth’s temperature over the past century; if news media exaggerate the serious of global warming; if most scientists agree that global warming is underway; if global warming presents a serious threat of harm within current lifetimes; and whether they personally worry a great deal about global warming.

Responses to Gallup’s question about whether people think global warming is occurring have also diverged along partisan lines.

How views diverge

On all of these measures but one — arguably the least significant of the set, concerned with whether warming’s effects are already being felt — the gaps between Democrats and Republicans have widened since 2008, and they were pretty big to begin with.

On the question of whether human activity is causing the planet to warm, for example, 43 percent of Republicans and 84 percent of Democrats agreed — a gap of 41 percentage points. In 2008, the gap was 32 points — 40 percent versus 72. (And in 2001 it was just 17 points, 53 percent versus 70.)

There was sufficient Republican increase in belief that global warming is already occurring in 2016 that the gap (after having widened for a number of years) was back to 34 percentage points. For the other five items we see an increase in the partisan gap of anywhere from five percentage points (seeing global warming as exaggerated in the news) to 14 percentage points (saying most scientists agree global warming is occurring) during the Obama era. …

In short, the results indicate that the substantial partisan polarization that had rapidly built up in the first eight years of the new millennium has not abated, but has actually grown since 2008.

That “Republican increase in belief” is good news, I guess, and in fairness I also want to note that Gallup has measured in the last year or two some very slight upticks in acceptance of global warming realities by all partisans — Republicans, Democrats and independents (for detailed breakdowns and charts, you can read the whole paper here without charge).

But this should not be taken as proof that facts, or personal experience, or even receptivity to reshaping energy systems for non-climate reasons, have begun to matter more. Key excerpts from the paper:

It has long been hoped that more factual information about human-caused climate change will increase public belief in its reality. However, two decades of news coverage and educational campaigns since 1997 have produced only modest increases in Americans’ belief in the reality and human cause of climate change, with gains among Democrats often offset by declines among Republicans.

Other analysts suggest that direct personal experience with extreme weather events or rising temperatures may increase belief in human-caused climate change, but a growing number of studies in recent years provide ambiguous results. Analyses investigating whether climate change views are influenced by exposure to climate-related physical risks (e.g., droughts, flooding, heat waves) sometimes find a small positive effect, a small negative effect, or no effect…. Further, a few studies report that strong partisans are less swayed by local temperature increases than are their less partisan or independent counterparts.

Some observers find optimism in recent polls showing that large pluralities and sometimes even small majorities of Republican voters (compared to sizable majorities of Democrats) express support for energy policies and other measures that would be helpful in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, as Lilliana Mason and other political analysts note, individuals can hold relatively moderate positions on many issues and yet be strong partisans committed to keeping the other party out of office.

Thus, as long as rank-and-file Republicans vote for conservative candidates, and those candidates remain steadfast in opposition to climate change action, the former’s receptivity to climate-friendly policies remains almost irrelevant — for the Congress they help elect will be highly unlikely to give such policies any consideration.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Peggy Reinhardt on 09/09/2016 - 10:17 am.

    Partisanship re: climate change

    I am confused by how climate change is viewed by people holding different political philosophies (if that is what you can call strongly held beliefs.)
    Perhaps it is more about individualism vs. community membership. I imagine it is hard for an “individualist” to acknowledge that something they do as an individual such as owning a gasoline car contributes to climate change. Perhaps suggesting a change to reduce their impact on the environment is taking away a freedom.
    While someone who sees themselves as part of a community is more willing to not take it personally when they own a car that contributes to climate change – yet they can make some small change for the community good. Drive a hybrid car, take the bus, install solar panels.
    To me, it is most unfortunate that climate change has become politicized. I view proposed legislation such as public transit and credits for energy conservation, as efforts designed to fill in the gap where private enterprise will not go. But it apparently is more important for legislators to stake out a position which neither points the finger at humans as contributing to climate change, nor spends money for the common good when that can’t be done by individuals alone.

  2. Submitted by Mike Downing on 09/09/2016 - 12:41 pm.

    What is your time horizon?

    One’s time horizon and not politics is the predictor of one’s belief in man made climate change. If one’s time horizon is 40 years then one believes in man made climate change. If one’s time horizon is 1000, 5000 or 10,000 years then one does not believe in man made climate change and can see the folly of spending tax dollars so foolishly.

    • Submitted by Julie Moore on 09/09/2016 - 03:33 pm.

      Where can I find this?

      Where can I find more information on this . . . scientifically speaking?

    • Submitted by John Clark on 09/10/2016 - 05:27 pm.

      Politics vs “time horizons”?

      I would argue just the opposite Mike, and say that ones politics, and not necessarily ones perception of “time horizons” is the best predictor of whether one believes in man made climate change or not. Why do I say that? Because, it seems, both those who think that recent climate change is predominantly man made, and those who deny it believe that, yes, over the past thousands of years, the climate has changed, and these changes were “natural” occurrences.

      But where politics comes into play is that deniers make the very non sequitur, and erroneous argument that humankind can not also have a significant effect on the earth’s climate. And currently, this belief certainly takes the form of a very vocal political position. The scientific understanding of the green house effects of CO2, on the other hand, has been around since the mid 1800s. And there is little doubt amongst climate scientists today of the adverse effects of human activity, that has now increased CO2 to an unprecedented level of over 400 ppm.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/09/2016 - 02:13 pm.

    carts and horses

    It seems that reluctance to spend any tax money is the reason that Republicans cannot accept that humans are causing global warming, looking out a hundred years or less (we may destroy the earth entirely within a hundred years, folks, at the current rate of despoliation by carbon-based pollution). To accept the scientific facts is to accept the prospect of doing something to counter the warming trend. Plus, conservatives by their nature do not want things to change. At all. So they are reluctant to accept the facts that would require them to change the way they live, individually or in community.

    Politics may influence one’s views of climate change, but only in the sense that Democrats are more willing to do what needs to be done–spend more money, change our mode of living, etc. So accepting a dire prospect and one’s responsibility is easier for Democrats.

    I just don’t buy the idea that “being any kind of political partisan” i the reason one doesn’t accept scientific facts. Being a dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republican today does, indeed, mean denying scientific fact. Being a partisan Democrat means accepting scientific consensus on the need for changing human patterns.

  4. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 09/09/2016 - 07:36 pm.

    Wrong – the facts do matter.

    However, that isn’t to say that people aren’t free to deny an inconvenient truth due to what a scary and difficult problem is.

    I would just urge all the climate change denier move to two locations – the coastal areas of the country and the hot and/or dry weather places of the southern and western areas Put your money where your mouth is.

    When your ocean front property is washed away or only accessible by boat, you will be reminded how wrong you were. Or as you look out at your dead lawn and are on water rationing, and the drought and water table drought is so severe, that fresh local fruit and vegetables are a distant memory, you might be willing to admit you were wrong. Just don’t count of having access to Minnesota water to bail you out.

  5. Submitted by Daniel Burbank on 09/11/2016 - 10:51 pm.

    Polarization increasing, but acceptance is increasing faster

    The science proving the increase in atmospheric CO2 and its human origin just cannot be honestly denied by anyone who has the wherewithal to understand what is currently known. The article highlights a 5% increase from 2010 in the difference of how political affiliation correlates with the ability to look at the issue and understand it. Considering how much effort some conservatives, who feel they have a lot to lose from actions taken to mitigate atmospheric CO2 increase, have expended to convince people that atmospheric CO2 increase is of no concern, I’m pretty amazed and happy that there has been a 9% increase in 6 years in Republicans acknowledging the reality of global warming. Some Republicans have come to realize that there are many business opportunities opening in efforts to mitigate anthropogenic global warming. If they want to hide their true views to save face, maybe Democrats should give them some space.

  6. Submitted by joe smith on 09/12/2016 - 08:18 am.

    If the same folks who tell me I have to believe

    them on climate change and the need for wealth re-distribution had not been wrong on so many other issues, I may believe them. The same experts said Obamacare was going to lower costs, the same experts told me the 1 Trillion dollar stimulus would create shovel ready jobs (6-8% went to infrastructure), there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the War on Poverty will help minorities, Education Dept will help students…… on and on it goes.

    I will always be skeptical of anything Big Government tells me that includes more tax dollars for the DC elites. That doesn’t make me backwards, not enlightened or ignorant it just me skeptical of folks who live off tax dollars looking for more.

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