How Liberal Elites Have Cued Climate Polarization
Over the past few decades, a tremendous amount of commentary and scholarship has emerged to elucidate the nature of what has been termed “climate denial.” Though a majority of Americans think the government should do more on climate, roughly one third of the public — mostly Republicans — contest the very existence of human-caused climate change.Anthony Leiserowitz, Edward Maibach, Seth Rosenthal, John Kotcher, Parrish Bergquist, Matthew Ballew, Matthew Goldberg, Abel Gustafson, and Xinran Wang. Climate Change in the American Mind: April 2020.Yale University and George Mason University (New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 2020).
Many activists, scholars, and journalists have argued that the growth of climate denial is the result of decades-long effort by conservatives and industry allies to mislead the American public about the causes of climate change. In The New Republic, Emily Atkin finds few people more responsible for climate change and climate denial than brothers Charles and David Koch.Emily Atkin, “How David Koch Changed the World,“ The New Republic, August 23, 2019, https://newrepublic.com/article/154836/david-koch-changed-world.In The Intercept, Kate Aronoff writes, "Decades of propaganda from the fossil fuel industry and the denialist think tanks they support have forced the debate to orbit around whether there’s a problem at all, prying open the Overton window to accommodate conspiracy theorists and Nobel Prize winners alike."Kate Aronoff, “Denial by a Different Name,” The Intercept, April 17, 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/04/17/climate-change-denial-trump-germany/.
Perhaps the clearest articulation of what has become the dominant narrative comes from science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway in their widely cited book, Merchants of Doubt. According to them, widespread climate denial is the consequence of a decades-long misinformation campaign orchestrated by a legion of conservative think tanks, politicians, contrarian scientists, and industry organizations and unwittingly aided by the mainstream media and its insistence on “balanced” coverage.Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010).
This organized and well-funded climate denial campaign may well have had an important influence on the actions of Republican office holders, but there is relatively little evidence that this misinformation campaign directly reached or influenced the public in a meaningful way. The denialist media campaign peaked in the late 1990s and has been on the wane ever since. Climate skeptics were rarely featured in conservative media outlets and almost never in mainstream outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post. The mainstream news media have generally been allies in disseminating mostly accurate — if too infrequent — information about scientific consensus and have rarely given space to contrarian analysts. Even the record in mainstream conservative outlets is much more mixed than the dominant narrative suggests.
Instead, conservatives and Republicans were overwhelmingly exposed to messages about the dangers of anthropogenic climate change and appeals to climate action from political figures whose partisan affiliations and ideological commitments are antithetical to their own. It has been well established for years that political elites hold tremendous sway over the preferences of their followers. This is also true in the reverse. Political elites have tremendous power to repel the followers of their opponents.
The problem with the conventional environmental story about climate denial is that it ignores the critical and polarizing impact of cues Republican voters received from Democratic and liberal elites. That is, the rise in Republican climate denial was not merely a response to denialist messages from Republican elites and their allies in industry; it was also very much a reaction against affirmative calls to action from prominent Democrats.
That, of course, does not in any way absolve Republican politicians of responsibility for the rise of climate denial among Republican voters. But that responsibility is as much one of omission as commission. Science never “speaks for itself,” and who speaks for it has an important influence both upon whether lay publics accept it and what meaning they take from it, especially when it is being offered in support of strong social or political claims.
What a more complete exploration of the evidence, alongside decades of political science research on opinion formation, reveals is a far more complex story than the conventional wisdom suggests, and this story offers insight into what a durable social and political consensus for climate action in the United States is likely to require.
Republican and Democratic voters have dramatically polarized on the science of climate change over the past several decades. From 2000 to 2017, Gallup found that, when asked about whether or not they worry a great deal about climate change, the partisan gap grew from only 14 points to 49.Frank Newport and Andrew Dugan, “Partisan Differences Growing on a Number of Issues,” Gallup, August 3, 2017, https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/215210/partisan-differences-growing-number-issues.aspx.Similar polarization has also occurred on beliefs regarding the cause of global warming.Aaron M. McCright and Riley E. Dunlap, “The Politicization of Climate Change and Polarization in the American Public's Views of Global Warming,” The Sociological Quarterly 52, no. 2 (2011): 155–94, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1533-8525.2011.01198.x.In fact, before the Kyoto Protocol treaty in 1997, there was little difference between Republicans and Democrats on their beliefs about climate change.Jon A. Krosnick, Allyson L. Holbrook, and Penny S. Visser, “The Impact of the Fall 1997 Debate about Global Warming on American Public Opinion,” Public Understanding of Science 9 (July 1, 2000): 239–60, https://doi.org/10.1088/0963-6625/9/3/303.
Climate polarization is both perplexing and a serious problem deserving of explanation and remedy. Partisans have grown apart on climate change even as the scientific consensus on its cause and severity has become ever clearer. And there are policy implications. Congressional elections have become less competitive over time as a result of demographic and ideological change in the electorate.Alan I. Abramowitz, Brad Alexander, and Matthew Gunning, “Incumbency, Redistricting, and the Decline of Competition in U.S. House Elections,” The Journal of Politics, February 2006,75–88.Republican political elites are increasingly insulated from majority national opinion on this and a host of other policy questions. They can cast votes opposed to most climate mitigation policies knowing full well it won’t unduly harm their electoral prospects. Understanding why Republican voters turned so hostile to climate science is thus vitally important.
Proponents of the now widely popular “Merchants of Doubt” narrative place the blame on a collection of conservative think tanks and industry organizations that have either directly propagated misinformation on climate change or financed such efforts, whose impact has been made possible by an uncritical news media. They contend that journalists highlight these contrarian sources in order to satisfy professional norms toward balanced coverage, resulting in false balance given that both sides are not equally credible.M. T. Boykoff and J. M. Boykoff, “Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the US Prestige Press,” Global Environmental Change 14, no. 2 (2004): 125–36; M. T. Boykoff and J. M. Boykoff, “Climate Change and Journalistic Norms: A Case-Study of US Mass-Media Coverage,” Geoforum 38, no. 6 (2007): 1190–204.
Of course, norms toward “balance” are indeed widespread in journalism. Journalists are sensitive to charges of bias, especially in light of declining trust in the news media by conservatives,Megan Brenan, “Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Edged Down to 41%,” Gallup, September 26, 2019, https://news.gallup.com/poll/267047/americans-trust-mass-media-edges-down.aspx.so they strive toward balance in order to bolster their credibility and maintain access to a wide variety of sources.C. Giannoulis, I. Botetzagias, and C. Skanavis, “Newspaper Reporters’ Priorities and Beliefs about Environmental Journalism: An Application of Q-Methodology,” Science Communication 32, no. 4 (2010): 425–66; P. J. Shoemaker and S. D. Reese, Mediating the Message in the 21st Century: A Media Sociology Perspective (New York: Routledge, 2014).“Balance” also generally entails conflicting viewpoints, and the journalistic establishment treats conflict as more newsworthy.S. H. Stocking, “How Journalists Deal with Scientific Uncertainty,” in Communicating Uncertainty: Media Coverage of New and Controversial Science, ed. S. M. Friedman, S. Dunwoody, and C. L. Rogers (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999), 23–42.
However, balance norms are certainly not the only factor in media coverage. The behavior of media organizations is shaped by a range of factors, including ownership structure, consumer preferences, and the sources of journalists themselves. And, depending on the outlet, journalists can be highly dependent on readily available sources given the time crunch of the now-instantaneous news cycle.P. Conrad, “Uses of Expertise: Sources, Quotes, and Voice in Reporting of Genetics in the News,” Public Understanding of Science 8 (1999): 285–302; H. P. Peters, “Scientists as Public Experts,” in Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology, ed. M. Bucchi and B. Trench (London: Routledge, 2008), 131–46.Reporting norms also vary across journalistic specialties. Science reporters tend to be more deferential to experts and to emphasize balance far less than other reporters, especially those covering the political beat.Conrad, “Uses of Expertise”; Peters, “Scientists as Public Experts.”
Given this complexity, the claim that balance norms overpower other factors in climate change news production requires strong evidence. Scholars have made a case for false balance in climate change reporting by illustrating the prevalence of uncertainty frames in climate change news content, the frequency with which those opposed to climate action are cited in news content,Boykoff and Boykoff, “Balance as Bias”; Boykoff and Boykoff, “Climate Change.”or the textual similarity between materials from organizations opposed to climate action and climate change news content.J. Farrell, “Network Structure and Influence of the Climate Change Countermovement,” Nature Climate Change 6 (2016): 370–74.
The findings produced by this literature are interesting, but suffer from some important limitations. There are real uncertainties associated with climate change that responsible reporting cannot ignore. Therefore, counting all references to scientific uncertainties in news content is prone to overstate the prevalence of cases of actual false balance, meaning instances in which uncertainty is stipulated with regard to well-established scientific findings. Researchers have also frequently failed to account for the shifting positions of many industry groups toward climate science and mitigation. Many industry groups that long ago publicly and unequivocally recognized the reality of anthropogenic climate change are still counted as denialist.Perhaps most notably with Exxon’s endorsement of carbon taxation: https://www.washingtonpost.com/energy-environment/2018/10/09/exxonmobil-gives-million-promote-carbon-tax-and-dividend-plan/.Maybe most problematic, key studies in the false balance literature have too often conflated opposition to particular mitigation policies with climate science denial.
We took another look at this topic and found little evidence of an overwhelming tendency toward false balance in climate change news coverage and that what little existed has virtually vanished. Between 1984 and 2014, denialists appeared in no more than 25 percent of news articles on climate change, and most groups of denialists — like contrarian scientists and organizations explicitly dedicated to climate denial — have seen their presence in the news decline. These media include conservative-leaning outlets like The Wall Street Journal and Fox News Channel. Industry groups have increased their presence in news content, but they do not often communicate positions that embrace climate denial. These groups communicated messages of climate denial only 16 percent of the time, the vast majority of which were around the time of the Kyoto Protocol. It does not appear that organized climate deniers have received much of a hearing in the news media — even in the conservative outlets we studied.E. Merkley and D. A. Stecula, “Party Elites or Manufactured Doubt? The Informational Context of Climate Change Polarization,” Science Communication 40, no. 2 (2018): 258–74.
Now, it is possible that journalists have elevated frames emphasizing scientific uncertainty even if they are not explicitly citing individuals and organizations linked to climate denial. But we found that the prevalence of uncertainty frames has dropped from close to 45 percent during the Kyoto Protocol debate in 1997 to around 10 percent by 2014.D. A. Stecula and E. Merkley, “Framing Climate Change: Economics, Ideology, and Uncertainty in American News Media Content from 1988 to 2014,” Frontiers in Communication 4 (2019), https://doi.org/10.3389/fcomm.2019.00006.This decline even happened in the conservative Wall Street Journal. This figure, if anything, is an overstatement of the importance of these frames in news coverage. In our manual coding, we identified a set of articles that not only contained an uncertainty frame, but elevated such arguments to be on an even playing field with those in favor of the scientific consensus. Only 8 percent of articles resembled false balance in the news reporting or were slanted in a way that was more explicit about rejecting the science of climate change. Uncertainty frames are not particularly common in climate news coverage, and “false balance” is even less common.
Moreover, climate coverage is far more faithful to the scientific consensus than other controversial science topics, like nuclear power or GMOs. Almost 60 percent of relevant news coverage on climate change and vaccines carried messages from experts aligned with the consensus, compared to roughly 30 percent for GMOs and less than 10 percent for nuclear power.E. Merkley, “Are Experts (News)Worthy? Balance, Conflict, and Mass Media Coverage of Expert Consensus,” Political Communication 37, no. 4 (2020): 530–49.And only 17 percent of climate change articles featuring an expert were contested by a contrarian expert, compared with roughly 40 percent for GMOs and nuclear energy. The same pattern exists in the citation of political opponents of the scientific consensus. Political opponents of the scientific consensus are far less likely to be cited in climate change news than in coverage of GMOs and nuclear power.
News coverage of climate change isn’t perfect. Journalists could do a better job in emphasizing the scientific consensus on the causes of climate change: they have done so in less than 40 percent of relevant news content. And conservative media, Fox News Channel in particular, are far more likely to carry messages disputing the scientific consensus on climate change, even if they don’t often cite established climate skeptics, and are also far more likely to politicize climate change coverage — although this is hardly attributable to journalistic norms.
On the whole, however, the rise of climate denial can’t be pinned on false balance and the boosting of messages by climate deniers, either recently or in the past. This finding doesn’t mean that the news media aren’t implicated in climate denial and polarization. The news media can still polarize American attitudes on climate change without carrying water for the climate denial movement, and that is precisely what it has done.
Political elites have a tremendous influence on public opinion formation. Partisans in the mass public tend to “follow the leader” when forming opinions on issues.J. Zaller, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992); G. Lenz, Follow the Leader? How Voters Respond to Politicians’ Policies and Performance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).Research shows that most Americans have unstable opinions on political issues, untethered to ideological constructs and based on limited information.D. R. Kinder and N. P. Kalmoe, Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Ideological Innocence in the American Public (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).And when they form opinions, they rely on trusted political actors. In effect, people learn the opinions they should have as a Democrat or a Republican from their political leaders. Even more politically interested Americans who may not need such guidance still use cues as an identity-reaffirming exercise to ensure that they take issue positions that make them members in good standing of their respective political tribes.B. N. Bakker, Y. Lelkes, and A. Malka, “Understanding Partisan Cue Receptivity: Tests of Predictions from the Bounded Rationality and Expressive Utility Perspectives,” The Journal of Politics 82, no. 3 (2019): 1061–77.
The power of elite cues also grows with polarization and media consumption, which have been rising sharply for decades. At a time when partisan identities are so important to so many Americans, and when the dislike, and sometimes even hatred, of the “other side” is rampant, polarization on any given issue is likely to follow when it becomes an axis of debate among political elites. Politicized news coverage of an issue begets mass partisan polarization as observed signals from politicians and parties reach the public.
And the news has become increasingly politicized. Between 1977 and 2016, references to politicians in leading news media outlets have increased at a staggering pace. In the late 1970s, an average American following the news encountered references to politicians in roughly a third of news stories. By 2016, it was two-thirds.D. A. Stecula, “Mass Media and Political Polarization in the United States” (University of British Columbia, 2018), https://open.library.ubc.ca/collections/ubctheses/24/items/1.0368990.
As a result, people are now much more aware of political differences between the parties, as well as much more likely to know what “goes with what” politically.Corwin D. Smidt, “Polarization and the Decline of the American Floating Voter,” American Journal of Political Science 61, no. 2 (2015): 365–81.And this isn’t only true of people bingeing on Fox News Channel and other hyperpartisan sources. Because politicized coverage is so widespread, any regular news can polarize. This situation contributes to ongoing partisan “sorting,” with liberal policy beliefs increasingly aligned with Democratic partisanship and conservative beliefs with Republican partisanship, furthering a sharp distinction between the parties and leaving little room for overlap or compromise.M. Levendusky, The Partisan Sort (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
News coverage of climate change has followed this pattern of rising politicization. Even though an overwhelming majority of climate change coverage in the news features references to experts and scientists, they have increasingly shared space with politicians, especially during the late 2000s when the issue dominated the news agenda.Merkley and Stecula, “Party Elites.”References to politicians doubled, from about a quarter of the coverage around the time of the Kyoto Protocol to over half of the coverage in 2014.Merkley and Stecula, “Party Elites.”
Importantly, people aren't only influenced by their trusted opinion leaders, known as in-party cue taking, but also by opposing messages from leaders of the “other” political side, called out-party cue taking.E. Merkley and D. A. Stecula, “Party Cues in the News: Democratic Elites, Republican Backlash, and the Dynamics of Climate Skepticism,” British Journal of Political Science (2020): 1–18, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007123420000113.Both matter independently. The ability of Democratic elites to repel Republican voters and vice versa has not been acknowledged enough in public opinion research.
Signals from Republican and Democratic elites were not reaching the public at the same rate in climate change news coverage. There was a sustained increase in the presence of Democratic cues in the news media at the same time as the issue was becoming very salient in 2006. At various points in recent years, Democratic elites were referenced in more than half of news stories about climate change. Meanwhile, the Republican cues have been on the decline since 2001 and recently make an appearance in less than 10 percent of the news coverage.Merkley and Stecula, “Party Cues.”Unsurprisingly, of course, Democrats consistently took a pro-climate stance — between 90 and 100 percent of messages coming from Democratic elites since the 1990s were pro-climate, meaning they endorsed the climate science consensus or the need for climate mitigation policy.
But the conventional wisdom that Republicans consistently communicate denialist messages does not bear out in our data. For a long period of time, only a minority of Republican messages were explicitly anti-climate, meaning they rejected either climate science or climate mitigation policy. For example, under 20 percent of Republican messages cast doubt on climate science during the George W. Bush presidency. There was, however, a notable shift of anti-climate rhetoric during the Obama presidency, with the emergence of the Tea Party movement, when over 40 percent of Republican rhetoric during Obama’s second term was anti-climate.
In short, Republican messages on climate over the past several decades were ambiguous and not uniformly anti-climate, but the messages from the Democratic elites were clear and overwhelmingly pro-climate. The likeliest explanation, then, for climate denial among Republicans is clear signals from Democratic elites, not Republicans.Merkley and Stecula, “Party Elites.”
We illustrate the importance of out-party cue taking from Democratic elites with an analysis of 172 poll questions about climate change from the Roper Center archive at Cornell University. Climate skepticism among Republicans is strongly associated with cues in the news media from Democratic elites. Democratic elite cues appear to lead Republicans’ climate skepticism, signaling that these citizens have been repelled by Democratic messages on climate change. We then conducted a survey experiment to verify these results. Once again, we found that the Republican respondents were responsive to out-party cues from Democratic elites in their reported attitudes toward climate science. That is, faced with a signal from Democratic politicians endorsing climate science, they reported more skeptical attitudes.Merkley and Stecula, “Party Cues.”
Al Gore and his documentary An Inconvenient Truth may be the most salient example of the importance of out-party cue taking. Climate change dominated the news after the documentary was released in 2006. And so did Al Gore, who featured in nearly a quarter of network broadcasts about climate change, in nearly one in five newspaper stories, and in more than half of stories about climate change on Fox News Channel in 2007.Dominik Stecula and Eric Merkley, “An Inconvenient Truth About An Inconvenient Truth,” The Conversation, August 16, 2017, https://theconversation.com/an-inconvenient-truth-about-an-inconvenient-truth-81799.But Gore was far from a neutral messenger. As a vice president and a former presidential candidate, his name was politically charged, and Gallup data show that 75 percent of Republicans had an unfavorable view about him around the time An Inconvenient Truth was released.Joseph Carroll, “Americans Not Warming to Al Gore,” Gallup, August 3, 2006, https://news.gallup.com/poll/23992/americans-warming-gore.aspx.A messenger with such a politically charged background is bound to polarize.
Climate change is in many ways a paradigmatic case study of opinion formation over the last 50 years. With rising politicized news coverage of a novel issue, partisans are repelled by cues from opposing elites, as well as pulled by those of trusted leaders on their side. Of course, not all issues are equally responsive to elite cues. Issues that have been on the public agenda for a while, like abortion, are unlikely to be as moved by elite rhetoric, short of a concerted and prolonged public effort.M. Tesler, “Elite Domination of Public Doubts About Climate Change (Not Evolution),” Political Communication 35, no. 2 (2018): 306–26, https://doi.org/10.1080/10584609.2017.1380092.But on novel, complex issues — as climate change was in the 1990s and still is in its complexity and remoteness from daily life — the public tend to follow their leaders.D. J. Ciuk and B. A. Yost, “The Effects of Issue Salience, Elite Influence, and Policy Content on Public Opinion,” Political Communication 33, no. 2 (2016): 328–45; Tesler, “Elite Domination.”
The history of climate polarization has some clear implications for how best to avoid debilitating partisan polarization on matters of science. The first lesson is that we should avoid the politicization of science-based issues if at all possible. The unfortunate reality is that there is often a trade-off between salience and politicization. As issues become matters of public and elite attention, they become axes of political conflict. Polarizing signals are conveyed to the mass public through the news media when parties situate themselves on opposite sides of an issue — as is often the case.
Sometimes issues will inevitably attract elite and public attention because they necessitate a substantial policy response. This is the case with climate change and with the COVID-19 pandemic. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and containing a global pandemic both demand the involvement of political elites. But not every science-based issue requires such involvement. Genetically modified foods are simply a reality of America’s food supply. Vaccines have maintained broad bipartisan support and remain a critical and widely used public health intervention. Legislative initiatives to bar GMO-free labeling or to mandate certain vaccinations, for example, risk making these issues flash points of political conflict, which will, in turn, polarize Americans along partisan lines. In the case of vaccines, this outcome could endanger the health of millions of Americans. Activists need to be fully cognizant of the trade-off between salience and politicization.
The second lesson is that messengers matter, and political messengers are likely to polarize the public when they are sending opposing signals. Recognized partisan voices have the power to not only generate support among those from their own political party, but to create opposition from members of the other party during times of heightened partisan polarization. The single most important person who elevated the salience of climate change is undoubtedly Al Gore, former vice president of the United States, with his release of the record-breaking documentary An Inconvenient Truth. But Al Gore was also a well-known politician who was universally disliked by Republicans. A messenger like that is far from ideal.
Consequently — even if it sounds like a cliché — it is important to reach out to good faith political opponents. That is because these voices, through their clout in their own communities, may serve as important messengers who are persuasive to the people who trust them. In the case of climate change, well-respected members of the conservative community make for effective communicators because they, better than anyone, understand what kinds of messages sell in their communities. Furthermore, people find these reversal narratives persuasive. One example of that is the conversion narrative by GMO opponent-turned-advocate Mark Lynas. A 2019 study found that an exposure to his original anti-GMO argument and then his new, altered science-consistent position on GMOs was more effective in creating more favorable GMO opinions than a science-only argument.B. A. Lyons, A. Hasell, M. Tallapragada, and K. H. Jamieson, “Conversion Messages and Attitude Change: Strong Arguments, Not Costly Signals,” Public Understanding of Science 28, no. 3 (2019): 320–38.
It is also important to amplify Republican and conservative pro-climate messages. There is less room for public opinion polarization when elites send consensus signals to the public.A. J. Berinsky, In Time of War: Understanding American Public Opinion from World War II to Iraq (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).Some recent work has shown, indeed, that elevating messages of Republican elites that are in line with the climate change consensus dampens denialism among Republicans.M. Tesler, S. D. Senegal, and L. A. Scruggs, “Correcting Misinformation About Climate Change: The Impact of Partisanship in an Experimental Setting,” Climatic Change 148 (2018): 61–80.
Public opinion surrounding COVID-19 offers a useful example of this dynamic. Many Republican elites were skeptical of the novel coronavirus at first, calling it a hoax or nothing more than a flu. But as the situation worsened, they reversed course, shifting Republican public opinion.Dominik Stecula, “What Do We Know About Misinformation during the Coronavirus Outbreak?,” Mischiefs of Faction, April 6, 2020, https://www.mischiefsoffaction.com/post/what-do-we-know-about-misinformation-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak.,J. Clinton, J. Cohen, J. Lapinski, and M. Trussler, “Partisan Pandemic: How Partisanship and Public Health Concerns Affect Individuals’ Social Mobility during COVID-19,” Science Advances 7, no. 2 (2020): eabd7204.Over time, however, partisan signals coming from Republicans and Democrats diverged significantly,J. Green, J. Edgerton, D. Naftel, K. Shoub, and S. J. Cranmer, “Elusive Consensus: Polarization in Elite Communication on the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Science Advances 6, no. 28 (2020): eabc2717, https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abc27.contributing to the growing partisan divides in public opinion and behaviors related to COVID-19.S. K. Gadarian, S. W. Goodman, and T. B. Pepinsky, “Partisanship, Health Behavior, and Policy Attitudes in the Early Stages of the COVID-19 Pandemic” (SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 3562796), Social Science Research Network (2020), https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3562796.Although on an accelerated schedule, these dynamics reflect the same dynamics that were present in polarization of American opinion on climate change.
Of course, some might argue that the time for persuading the other side has passed, and that what is now needed is swift policy action implemented by politicians who take climate change seriously. In short: if you can’t persuade them, beat them at the polls. The frustration underlying these arguments is understandable, given the magnitude of the problem, but it is unlikely to produce robust and lasting climate policy.
The unfortunate reality is that American democratic institutions are deeply counter-majoritarian. Democrats need to win the popular vote by 7-11 percentage points to hold a majority in the House of Representatives. The Senate is even more grotesquely antidemocratic, massively overweighting the votes of white voters in small red states.Dylan Matthews, “The Tyranny of the Majority Isn’t a Problem in America Today: Tyranny of the Minority Is,” Vox, September 12, 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/9/12/17850980/democracy-tyranny-minority-mob-rule-james-madison.,Lee Drutman, “The Senate Has Always Favored Smaller States: It Just Didn’t Help Republicans Until Now,” FiveThirtyEight, July 29, 2020, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-senate-has-always-favored-smaller-states-it-just-didnt-help-republicans-until-now/.,Ella Nilsen, “A new report says Democrats need to win the popular vote by 11 points to retake the House,” Vox, March 27 2018, https://www.vox.com/policy-and...Even though unified Democratic government was secured in the 2020 election cycle, it is unlikely to be long-lasting as a result of inevitable midterm backlash to incumbent presidents. Furthermore, at this time, Republicans have a 6–3 majority on the Supreme Court. Voting the bums out will simply not suffice. Reaching out to Republican elites and voters will likely be necessary for robust and long-lasting climate policy.
Encouragingly, there seems to be considerable consensus on climate change at the subnational level. Surveys of American politicians at the local and state levels throughout the country demonstrate that there is widespread bipartisan agreement among Republican and Democratic policy makers about not only the existence of global warming, but the policy solutions needed to tackle the problem. This subnational consensus might provide a blueprint for unified action by national politicians.N. R. Lee and D. A. Stecula, “Subnational Bipartisanship on Climate Change: Evidence from Surveys of Local and State Policymakers,” Climatic Change, 164, no. 20 (2021), https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-021-02964-x.
The extreme partisan polarization of the American public on climate change wasn’t inevitable, and reversing it is possible, however difficult. As tempting as it might be to direct anger at the fossil fuel industry, Astroturf groups, and other “Merchants of Doubt,” the data tell a different story: whatever role such actors played in sowing climate denial, it was dwarfed by the impact of politicians and parties.
While climate change is a collective action problem unprecedented in its scale and complexity, the evolution of climate attitudes is an entirely conventional story of opinion formation, driven in large part by the push and pull of elite cues. And in our era of rising affective polarization and negative partisanship, it is little wonder that the alienating impact of out-party elite messages took center stage in the rise of climate denial.
Some research suggests the persuasive power and importance of scientific consensus messaging on climate change.S. L. van der Linden, A. A. Leiserowitz, G. D. Feinberg, and E. W. Maibach, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change as a Gateway Belief: Experimental Evidence,” PloS One 10, no. 2 (2015): e0118489; M. H. Goldberg, S. van der Linden, A. Leiserowitz, and E. Maibach, “Perceived Social Consensus Can Reduce Ideological Biases on Climate Change,” Environment and Behavior 52, no. 5 (2020): 495–517.The media and politicians should, of course, heed this advice. But there is little evidence that those messages are capable of overcoming political divisions and contested attitudes toward risk, the environment, and the role of government. As a result, these cues are unlikely to be sufficient to sustain climate action if they get drowned out by partisan contestation. Any serious efforts to communicate climate science to the public and galvanize lasting policy action will need to adapt to that reality.
Read a rebuttal to this piece by Climate One's George Marshall here.
Image: "Al Gore giving one of the keynotes at SapphireNow 2010" by Tom Raftery, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, Desaturated, cropped, and flipped from original