Is There a Way to Solve the American Fight Over Climate Change?

The knock-down, drag-out brawl over global warming in the United States may be daunting, but it's not insurmountable.


In his speech at the opening of the Paris global summit on climate change, U.S. President Barack Obama urged foreign leaders to “show the world what is possible when we come together, united in common effort and by a common purpose.” During the two weeks of talks (which were scheduled to conclude on Dec. 11 but are now set to wrap up the following day after hitting roadblocks in the negotiations), 150 world leaders and some 30,000 diplomats and delegates have been trying to secure a binding plan to halt global warming. Given the great diversity of conflicting interests represented at the table, it has been difficult to imagine a resulting international agreement that is both unambiguous and sufficient to the task of combating climate change.

Even if international divisions over climate change are bridged, however, there will still be an enormous gulf on the issue within the United States. Republicans in Congress and presidential hopefuls have promised to overturn any international pact agreed to in Paris. Congress approved two measures designed to undermine Obama’s efforts to reduce emissions from U.S. power plants. While the president plans to veto these measures, the need to do so undercuts the unity of purpose he is trying to present to the crowds gathered in Paris.

Of all the foreign-policy decisions facing the United States today — including immigration, international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and cyberattacks — none elicits greater partisan division among the American public, according to results from the Chicago Council Survey from this year. Between self-described Republican and Democratic voters, there is a 41-percentage point gap on this issue. Fifty-eight percent of Democratic voters consider climate change a critical threat to the United States, compared to 17 percent among Republican voters. But there’s evidence that suggests that though this divide may be daunting, it’s also not insurmountable.

Are partisan divisions the result of ignorance or ideology?  

Before trying to resolve this glaring public opinion discrepancy, it’s important to understand what’s behind it. Several studies have shown that there is no clear link between individuals’ knowledge or awareness and their sense of the threat posed by climate change. An analysis of Gallup surveys over the past decade by professors Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap in the Sociological Quarterly finds that conservative Republicans with higher levels of education and greater self-reported understanding of climate change are less likely to be concerned about global warming or to believe it is caused by humans. On the other hand, Democrats with higher education and self-reported understanding of climate change express greater concern.

The 2015 Chicago Council Survey data reveal similar patterns. Highly educated Democrats are more likely to view climate change as a critical threat, but there is no clear relationship between education and concern among Republicans. The lack of an educational pattern is even more pronounced in the results of the 2014 Chicago Council “elite” survey, which polled leaders in the United States from the government, academic institutions, think tanks, business, the media, religious institutions, and NGOS. Among this well-educated group, only 20 percent of Republican opinion leaders think climate change is a critical threat to the United States, compared to 79 percent among Democratic opinion leaders. In fact, the gap between Republican and Democratic opinion leaders who consider climate change a critical threat is 59 percentage points — even higher than that among the public.

This suggests that the differences above are primarily ideological — a product of the so-called culture wars. If this is correct, then campaigns to increase awareness of the fact that climate change is real and that current changes are being caused by humans will not be sufficient to bridge the partisan divide on this important issue. The controversy over climate change probably taps into Republican and Democratic disagreements over their own preferences about the value of government regulation. Various policy proposals to limit climate change (such as carbon cap and trade schemes and limiting power-plant emissions) run at odds with conservatives’ values of limited government, free markets, and business development.

In addition, the differences between Democratic and Republican opinion illuminate diverging perceptions of the immediacy of action needed and willingness to shoulder costs. Democrats have grown more likely to support immediate action on climate change over the past five years. Today, a majority (56 percent) say that immediate action is needed even at significant cost. Most Republicans, however, remain split over whether the problem of climate change should be dealt with gradually, by taking steps that are low in cost (43 percent), or whether climate change is really a problem at all (44 percent) — a view shared by few Democrats (13 percent).

Given that the strength of these partisan divisions among the general public and opinion leaders are larger among climate change than other issue, reaching agreement about climate action seems far out of reach. Yet some of the survey results suggest a path beyond the impasse. According to the 2014 American Climate Values study, majorities of both Republicans and Democrats agree that increasing the use of renewable energy will help offset the impacts of climate change. If that is true, Bill Gates’s efforts in rallying investors to fund innovative renewable technologies, announced on Nov. 30 in Paris, might tap into broader public support. Depoliticizing climate change by focusing attention on meeting its practical challenges and reducing future risks should go some distance toward consensus.

Internationalizing responsibility for climate change, as the meetings in Paris are designed to do, may also help to depoliticize the issue. After all, a global approach to limiting climate change will require sacrifices from all countries. The Chicago Council Survey data show that despite their hesitance about climate change, Republican voters are more likely to favor than oppose an international agreement to deal with climate change. In 2014, when asked about a series of international treaties, a majority of Democrats (86 percent), and to a lesser extent, Republicans (54 percent), said they support the United States participating in a new international treaty to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions (though for Republican opinion leaders, support is lower). Previous Chicago Council Surveys conducted between 2002 and 2006 found that about six in 10 Republicans supported “the Kyoto Agreement to reduce global warming,” even though the U.S. government never signed Kyoto. And recent Pew and CBS News/New York Times surveys found that a majority of Republicans — though only a bare majority — and a larger majority of Democrats support an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

While depoliticizing and internationalizing climate change may increase support among the public for American leadership on climate change, this is less likely to work with Congress and political elites. Some progress might be made without congressional approval. For Obama’s part, he may be able to sidestep opposition to any agreement reached in Paris by signing on to a reciprocal but non-legally binding national commitment. A weaker commitment, however, means that climate action will have to come from other sources.

There are some opportunities here. For example, 81 large companies, which collectively employ more than 9 million people, have signed on to the White House’s American Business Act on Climate Pledge. Meanwhile, cities and state governors are capable of insisting on much more drastic cuts in emissions than the ones proposed in Paris. Evidence from states like California that investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy are a good economic bet has bipartisan appeal. American leadership on climate change ultimately hangs on whether these local efforts can get the public to agree, if not about the issue itself, at least on what to do about it.



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