Author: Reynard Loki
“Human kind …cannot bear very much reality.” —T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton
It’s been over a year since polling data found that climate change has emerged as America’s most polarizing political issue. The survey, conducted by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, found that the divisiveness characterizing the climate debate is so strong it has eclipsed such longstanding hot-button issues as gun control, evolution, the death penalty and even abortion. And with President Obama recently making an historic visit to Alaska to speak about the urgency of acting on climate change just as Republicans strive to derail his climate agenda, there is little sign that the climate gap separating the nation’s two major parties will be bridged any time soon.
In 2009, the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans’ views about the state of science and its impact on society. They concluded that “the strongest correlate of opinion on climate change is partisan affiliation.” Two-thirds of Republicans (67 percent) believe that global warming isn’t actually happening — or if it is, it’s not from man-made causes. By contrast, most Democrats (64 percent) say the planet is heating up mainly due to humans.
Climate change should not be this polarizing: Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN’s climate arm, reported that scientists are more than 95 percent certain that the primary cause of global warming is human activity.
American Pipe Dream
When it comes to the general election, the climate issue poses an electoral problem for the Republicans: A majority of Americans say they are more likely to support political candidates who promise to tackle climate change, according to a recent poll. Conducted by the New York Times, Stanford University and Resources for the Future, the poll found that two-thirds of Americans say they would support candidates who promised to take action to combat climate change. Almost half of Republicans (48 percent) say the same thing. The poll also found that a solid majority of U.S. voters, 83 percent, believe global warming poses a serious threat to the world.
While there are climate deniers across the globe, this anti-science stance is a particularly American phenomenon. In the U.S., elected GOP climate deniers are commonplace; several of them are seeking the presidency. It’s a different story in other industrualized nations. “In Europe, climate change denial is seen as the preserve of the crackpot,” writes London-based finance and economics writer Imogen Reed. “Few political figures or members of the news media would dream of mentioning it, as doing so often receives the same contempt from the European public as denying the Holocaust.”
Even citizens of emerging countries are more attuned to the realities of global warming. The 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Project found that the majority of consumers in China (91 percent), India (73 percent) and South Korea (71 percent) are willing to pay higher prices to address climate change. Not so in America, where a mere 38 percent of consumers would do the same. “In this sentiment, people in the U.S. are out of step with the world,” the report’s authors write. “In most of the countries surveyed people are more likely than Americans to be willing to pay for efforts to slow global warming.”
The GOP’s climate denial, buoyed by a massive social, financial and political machine oiled by conservative think-tanks and activist groups, has created a potentially disastrous situation in which climate change — arguably the most pressing global issue of our time — has also become the most polarizing topic in the nation whose leadership is absolutely critical to finding a solution. While Obama committed to an 83 percent reduction in carbon emissions on 2005 levels by 2050, that goal faces a massive hurdle: a rich and powerful Republican machine that seeks to dismantle the president’s climate agenda. With the two major parties locked in a seemingly intractable adversarial stance on the topic, truly meaningful action seems almost like a pipe dream.
If it is a dream, it’s because the GOP refuses to accept reality. The Carsey poll found that party-line gaps on science-related questions “equal or surpass those of historically divisive social issues.” The division is primarily driven by the Republicans, 70 percent of whom don’t believe in global warming. This position stands in stark contrast to the world’s scientists, 97 percent of whom agree that global warming has occurred in the last century. Lawrence Hamilton, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire who conducted the Carsey poll, wrote that the findings represent “a changing political landscape in which scientific ideas and information that are accepted by most scientists are, nevertheless, highly controversial.”
The controversy is fueled in part by misinformation coming from the media. Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released its analysis of 2013 climate coverage by the three major American cable news networks. The researchers confirmed what most environmentalists had already guessed: Fox News leads the pack in climate misinformation. The right-wing mouthpiece presented misleading statements in almost three out of every four (72 percent) of its climate-related segments. Bucking that trend is Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, who has acknowledged anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change, though he is one of very few voices at the network to do so.