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  • Ella Coulson

The Polarization of Climate Change

By Ella Coulson



It is no secret that the issue of climate change has become extremely politicized in recent decades. Climate change first became a political issue in the 1970s, almost 20 years after scientists had discovered the warming effect of carbon emissions on the atmosphere. Initially, there was a mutual understanding within politics about the seriousness of the warming Earth. Over time, however, this issue has become extremely polarized in government, allowing climate change to be viewed differently along the political spectrum. Currently, many Democrats emphasize the extremity of the global crisis, while numerous Republicans claim climate change is a liberal hoax trying to dismantle the capitalistic system they know and love. With this polarized view of the atmospheric phenomenon, it is vital to understand the history of the issue, the causes of this ideological split, and the toll it has taken on our government and Earth.

In order to identify a potential reason behind the polarization of climate change in government, we must first understand its scientific discovery and introduction to the political agenda. Climate scientists became aware of the warming effects of carbon dioxide on the Earth’s atmosphere in the late 1950s. Scientist Roger Revelle established the Mauna Loa Carbon Dioxide Program in 1958, and collaborating with Charles David Keeling, developed a graph that charted the warming effects of carbon dioxide on Earth’s atmosphere in 1958. The “Keeling Curve'' was shared with Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson, alerting the government that the burning of fossil fuels had been altering the composition of the atmosphere. Additional reports were published under President Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee regarding concern for environmental changes such as rising sea levels and ocean acidification. Climate change began to gain public attention as a serious environmental issue, requiring appropriate action to prevent further environmental degradation.


Relying on the evidence attributing carbon dioxide to the warming of Earth’s atmosphere, scientist Jule Charney organized a cohort of climate scientists in the early 1980s to discuss the issue. A year later, two dozen scientists, policy-makers, and researchers met in Florida to craft climate policy. While there was a consensus about the extremity of the issue, some were not sold on crafting climate policy, claiming it was unnecessary to require legislation to address the problem. Others, such as science consultant Anthony Scoville, claimed climate change should be approached as a political problem but doubted that a scientific report would convince politicians to enact climate policy. To no surprise, climate policy was not passed, nor was it drafted. This first effort towards creating climate policy failed, and one could argue this set the pace for future climate legislation in America.

It was evident that scientists and politicians were not going to decide on an approach to climate policy, but they were confident the President would take appropriate measures to combat the issue. President Ronald Reagan did the opposite. When Reagan took office in the early 1980s, he appointed Anne Gorsuch as the administrator of the EPA. Gorsuch cut funds for the EPA by 22%, allowed restricted-use pesticides for agricultural purposes, and made the regulations of the Clean Air Act extremely lenient. With the intent of reserving land for oil and gas extraction projects, Reagan appointed James Watt, an oil and gas lobbyist, as head of public lands. Reagan encouraged the National Academy of Sciences to undermine and insinuate doubt in the proven science behind climate change. These actions taken by the Reagan administration also contributed to the collapse of climate policy momentum.


The summer of 1988 was the hottest on record, and legislation to reduce carbon emissions had not been passed. President George H.W. Bush took office in 1989 and was the first President to publicly acknowledge the greenhouse effect, which prompted the creation of 32 climate bills. Bush devoted a majority of his environmental legislation to the promotion and protection of air quality. Bush was an avid environmentalist who saw climate change as an environmental issue, one that required direct environmental action. This perspective has not been shared/replicated by a Republican president since this term.


Following Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton was elected to office and worked to promote the enforcement of environmental laws. President Clinton strengthened the Safe Drinking Water Act, adopted regulatory standards on air pollution, and accelerated the clean-up of toxic waste sites. The Kyoto Protocol, proposed in 1997, was a treaty that targeted developed countries in limiting their carbon emissions. Clinton signed the treaty in 1998, but the Senate did not ratify it.


With the transition to Republican President George W. Bush, climate activists were eager to learn of his plans for the developing issue of climate change. Unfortunately, Bush was not in support of the Kyoto Protocol, for fear that climate legislation would damage the U.S. economy. Viewing climate policy as a hindrance to economic growth, his administration worked to cast doubt on climate science in an effort to prevent the crafting of legislation. A representative of the EPA under the Bush administration, Jeremy Symons, openly labeled climate change as a charade. There were substantial efforts made to weaken environmental protection laws, such as the regulation of car emissions, because he focused on the economic benefit of carbon emissions.


During President Obama’s term, he introduced the Climate Action Plan, his ambitious policy approach to combating climate change. This legislation set the first national carbon pollution standards for power plants. President Obama invested billions into renewable energy research and implementation and managed federal funding for state energy efficiency programs. Obama was implementing more extreme climate policies to reverse the environmental degradation that was already apparent. The U.S. was heavily involved in the establishment of the 2015 Paris Agreement, the new and improved version of the Kyoto Protocol. This international agreement was an opportunity for all countries, regardless of economic status, to set personal emission goals and track their progress to a cleaner future.


Beginning this Presidential term/It is no surprise that, President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, claiming climate change was a hoax. Never had we seen a Republican president so motivated to falsify the science behind this phenomenon, which was reflected in his climate policy approach. During his presidency, Trump worked passionately to reverse all of Obama’s climate action plans. Trump replaced the Clean Power Plan, removed oil and gas extraction bans, and appointed Scott Pruitt, an oil lobbyist, as head of the EPA. This presidential term was a major setback for climate policy momentum.


Since its introduction to politics, Presidents have had differing views on the legitimacy and extremity of climate change, which has been reflected in their approaches to climate policy. Democratic Presidents have made environmental protection and climate policy a main goal, while Republican Presidents have progressively taken less appropriate actions to address climate change. The recurrence of a Democratic President supporting climate legislation and a Republican President against it has been undeniable in the most recent decades. This pattern of 2 distinct polarized positions on climate change has affirmed this stereotype.


A potential reason for this ideological split could be attributed to the mixed consensus about the type of issue climate change is. Originally, both Democrats and Republicans believed climate change to be an environmental issue, as seen in past legislation which directly targets the environment. The Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, established under Republican President Richard Nixon, protect air quality and aid in the preservation of endangered species. After the presidential term of George H.W. Bush, this environmental approach was abandoned, as the next Republican presidents began to address climate change as an economic issue. Since the presidential term of George W. Bush, Republican presidents have viewed climate policy as a threat to the economy. These presidents share the belief that carbon emissions represent economic growth, as these pollutants are a direct byproduct of productivity. This belief is represented in their approaches toward climate policy or lack thereof. For fear of economic hindrance, they choose to question the science behind climate change so they can cast doubt on the need for legislation. This was represented in George W. Bush’s intentions behind refusing to enter into the Kyoto Protocol, and Donald Trump pulling the U.S. from the Paris agreement, in an effort to prevent any negative economic effects. If Democrats and Republicans view climate change as two different issues, they will undoubtedly have differing approaches to climate legislation.


Another possible reason for the polarization of climate change in government may be due to the disproportionate nature of the phenomenon. A trend described in a 2021 EPA analysis confirmed that climate change disproportionately impacts lower-income areas. It is also evident that lower-income voters tend to be more liberal on policies and vote as Democrats, whereas higher-income voters tend to be more conservative on matters, and thus vote as Republicans. Put these trends together and we can see that statistically, Democrats are more likely to feel the burden of climate change because they tend to live in lower-income areas that are prone to its consequences. Therefore, Democrats will likely be more passionate about promoting climate policy because they are feeling its effects more than Republicans who potentially live in areas not as vulnerable to the consequences. This is also the case for communities of color, as reports have proven that minority populations are disproportionately impacted by climate change. A study done at the University of Southern California found that African Americans and low-income individuals are more susceptible to death than wealthy, white communities when faced with the drastic consequences of climate change. This disadvantage is attributed to the vulnerability of the areas in which these communities are located, as well as the lack of money and resources at their disposal to recuperate from the damage climate change inflicts.


In the eyes of a Republican, climate policy would cause increased government intervention and higher taxes, not to mention its potential to inflict temporary damage on the U.S. economy. Democrats are in favor of these political circumstances while Republicans are not. So it is likely that many Republicans are against climate legislation because they do not want to encourage the liberal policy program. Republicans have openly accused climate legislation of attempting to dismantle the capitalistic system, as climate change questions the nature of our current economy. For decades, our economy has been operating on the belief system of an endless supply of resources for economic growth, and this is the very belief that has caused the environmental degradation we are now forced to face. Evidently, addressing climate change requires the need for a different economic approach to resources. It is clear that supporting climate change does not only promote the liberal policy program, but also requires the restructuring of our economic system, one that Republicans thrive off of.


Analyzing the history of climate change in the political arena allows individuals to grasp the extent to which this issue has become politicized and polarized. While many argue science should not have its legitimacy debated in politics, the evidence behind the changes in our climate has been repeatedly called into question to cause doubt in the need for legislation. Carbon emissions are altering the composition of the atmosphere and are responsible for the environmental degradation visible on Earth. However, politicians continue to argue about the seriousness of the issue at different points along the political spectrum. We cannot pinpoint one cause of the polarization of climate change in government, as there are various influencing factors. We can, however, acknowledge the need for a consensus on the type of issue climate change is and an approach to legislation. Both parties need to take collective action in implementing climate policy which takes into account both Democratic and Republican perspectives. Politicians must work toward a common goal with a united understanding of the issue, for it is the only way to save our Earth from permanent destruction.

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