Why is Climate change such a politicised issue in the US?

Year after year records have been broken for global average temperatures: without a doubt, climate change is well underway. The scientific consensus is clear – 97% of climate scientists agree that contemporary global warming is caused by humans. If only this clarity could be said about the politics of climate change.

The US is the world’s second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and it is the largest economy. The current president has previously called global warming a ‘hoax’, has already set in motion orders to reverse environmental policies Obama implemented and has amassed an ensemble of climate change denialists and sceptics for his cabinet. The Paris Accord – a treaty which relies on international collaboration to limit global warming to be under 2 degrees Celsius (the accepted minimum temperature to avoid catastrophic climate change) – has just gotten underway and the US, much to the disdain of the international community, now threatens the integrity of this global effort. This blatant refusal to cooperate seems irrational and is against the interests of both the domestic US population and the rest of the world.

In the UK and most countries, there is bipartisan political support for action against climate change. In the US it’s a hotly partisan political issue; the Republican party remain the most vocal major political party to actively oppose climate change. This contrarian position is the product of a trend of polarising politics that has engulfed America over the past decade.

Previously, you couldn’t necessarily tell if someone had liberal or conservative viewpoints from their party alliance. However, each party has become increasingly ideologically purified – where the politicians have homogeneous viewpoints within their party – forcing the contrast between them to become more and more evident.

Media plays a large role in this polarisation; increasingly voters only receive their information from channels that are aligned with their political beliefs. This so-called ‘balkanisation’ of media viewership has created echo chambers which have caused the rift of polarisation to increase even further. Therefore, the question is how did climate change become the victim of polarised politics?

It originates a few decades ago with US conservative think-tanks being in the pay of business and big oil corporations to produce material that cast doubt upon the work of climate change reports: manufacturing doubt over science also being a key tactic used by the desperate tobacco industry to discredit claims that smoking causes cancer. Due to the proliferation of echo chambers in media viewership, conservative and Republican voters overwhelmingly received reports riddled with anti-science climate change denial, which in turn caused many Republican voters to deny the scientific consensus on climate change.

The Republican party has human-caused climate change denial as one of its fundamental tenets. Large-scale economic intervention is required to combat climate change, and that would necessitate government intrusion through subsidies and regulation. If the Republican party accepts the scientific consensus and thus acknowledges the requirement of government to address the problem, then that would discredit their dogma that all government influence is bad. On the other hand, the Democratic party holds the position that larger government influence is a good thing; this is not at odds with accepting climate-reality, and as such they support action to mitigate the issue. With identity politics at play, it cements both sides into each party, with psychology studies showing that voters often decide their position on an issue mostly over what party proposed it initially and not the policy itself.

With Trump enforcing despotic measures such as environmental organisations having to acquire political clearance before announcing any climate research, and with environmental acts being scrapped in favour of increased onshore oil production and heavily polluting coal plants, the outlook seems very bleak. In an age where people would assume science would trump all political qualms, it seems this is very much so not the case.

There are still glimmers of hope, such as the vigilance of the international community to ensure climate change action continues. On a domestic level, individual states such as California are still pursuing a green route and volunteers are planning on backing up government climate research before it is wiped from the government’s databases.

We can’t afford to halt climate change action for a minimum 4-8 years due to petty party tribalism. The crucial Paris Climate Accord is at risk due to reduced US involvement as China’s president wouldn’t want to be a ‘sole leader’ on climate action. This is a case of prioritising short-term economic benefits over averting long-term serious environmental damage; the symbol of the incumbent party is an elephant, let’s just hope that nature’s elephant will survive for far longer than the Republican party will.

Article by Richard Murchie

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