American voters and politicians are now more polarized than ever before across all aspects of climate change — from the cause, to the science and the impacts — a major new analysis has found.
Campaigns funded by vested fossil fuel interests and pushed by a network of ideological think tanks, many linked to the oil billionaire Koch brothers, have helped to widen the gap, pushing Republican politicians, elites and voters away from action on greenhouse gas emissions.
Tracking Gallup opinion poll surveys going back to 2001 and congress voting patterns from 1970 onwards, the analysis authors warn that as the November election approaches, Americans are faced with a stark political choice.
The analysis is published in the respected journal Environment and comes from sociologists Associate Professor Aaron McCright of Michigan State University, Professor Riley Dunlap of Oklahoma State University, and PhD researcher Jerrod Yarosh also at Oklahoma.
The researchers found the widest gaps between Democrats and Republicans come when they are asked about the causes of climate change and if the media exaggerates the seriousness of the issue.
While virtually all climate scientists and the world’s leading scientific academies have long agreed that the burning of fossil fuels is causing climate change, only about half Republicans accept the science.
A Republican controlled Congress, the article says, would be a “huge step backward in our nation’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” and could also undermine international cooperation, especially if Republican nominee Donald Trump won the Presidency.
“Whether, and how, individual Americans vote this November may well be the most consequential climate-related decision most of them will have ever taken,” the authors conclude.
Dunlap told DeSmog the choice facing US voters was glaring.
“Looking back, Gore versus Bush was stark, although Bush hid his denial for a bit. But now the partisan differences on climate change are out in the open, and the choices from the top down are stark.”
The Koch brothers had led a network of “conservative mega-donors” that had created a “shadow GOP” that had managed to reduce the influence of the Republican National Committee, the analysis argues.
These efforts, the article explains, have blocked legislation, limited international negotiations and made rejection of climate science “normative” among Republican elites and activists.
Dunlap, McCright and Yarosh looked at how elected Democrats and Republicans had voted on environment and climate bills in both houses of Congress since 1970, using data from the League of Conservation Voters. The researchers found:
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.
Since 2001 polling company Gallup has been asking US voters for their views on aspects of climate change, such as if they think it’s happening, if it’s caused by humans and if they are concerned about it.
In 2001, 53 percent of Republican voters agreed that global warming was caused by humans, compared with 70 percent of Democrats — a gap of 17 percentage points. But by 2016, this gap had blown out to 41 percentage points, with only 43 percent of Republican voters accepting climate change is human-caused.
These “partisan gaps” had widened across all areas since 2008, except when voters were asked if they thought global warming had already started, where the gap remained at 34 percentage points.
Bridging the Gap?
Alongside the analysis, the authors look at various attempts to bring Republicans closer to accepting the realities of climate change, such as changing communication strategies. The writers claim:
Does any persuasive framing strategy hold special promise for penetrating Republicans’ partisan/ideological identities? The evidence so far gives little basis for optimism.
The sociologists say one major reason why attempts to better communicate the realities of climate change to conservatives have failed is down to “motivated cognition” — described as the tendency for people to only accept information that reinforces their existing political beliefs and their views on the world.
Even when Republicans experience extreme weather events, there was little evidence that this was enough for those voters to change their views. Dunlap told DeSmog:
“I fear polarization will be difficult to overcome because Republican reluctance to accept the reality and seriousness of human-caused climate change is in a self-reinforcing loop.
There are top-down cues from Republican political elites and their supporters from conservative think tanks to conservative media — especially the Murdoch media— that influence voters, as well as bottom-up pressure from party activists such as Tea Party supporters who act as ‘enforcers’ of party principles, especially in primary elections to select Republican candidates.
The result is that global warming has joined God, guns, gays, and abortion as core elements of Republican identity, and this will be hard to change.”