• Laith Weinberger

The Widening Political Gap in the Climate Change Debate

Sacha Vega/TED

In 2018, a grant to help television meteorologists educate viewers on climate change-related science when reporting weather was up for renewal in Congress. Matters like these, which were once bipartisan, now elicit allegations of liberal indoctrination. “Research designed to sway individuals of a various group, be they meteorologists or engineers, to a politically contentious viewpoint is not science — it’s propagandizing,” four Republican senators opposed to the funding wrote. Their letter to the National Science Foundation’s Inspector General prompts the question: When did the recognition of climate change become a “contentious viewpoint,” and why are issues related to our climate so politicized?

Perhaps climate change first became a divisive issue in the midst of the 1988 presidential election, when George H.W. Bush’s call for legislation to address climate change was met with opposition from conservatives. Or perhaps the controversy began well before then, in the 1960s, when climate change first reached a political audience. But whenever climate polarization initially began, Donald Trump’s 2016 candidacy and presidency certainly had a major impact on public sentiment in the United States regarding the legitimacy of climate change. The Trump administration exploited the mentality of climate change deniers to clinch votes, with climate denial at the core of Trump’s campaign. This article will explore how Trump played up climate change skepticism to gain support, the impact his opinions had on the public, and what this means for America.

First, it is important to note the view of Trump and his administration on climate change. Tweets espousing views including that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” reflected Trump’s approach to climate change, which revolved around negation and a desire to do away with pro-climate legislation. In political speeches or when asked to comment on matters, Trump often denied or minimized the impact of global warming. For example, Trump’s reaction to the 2018 National Climate Assessment, which in part detailed the decline of the U.S. economy as a result of continued greenhouse gas pollution, was: “I’ve seen it, I’ve read some of it, and it’s fine.” He added, “I don’t believe it.” In Trump’s first 18 months in office, he appointed and nominated known climate change skeptics and deniers to powerful positions, including as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, the head of NASA, and the Energy Secretary. Under his administration, the Keystone XL oil pipeline was reinstated, the United States pulled out from the Paris Agreement, Obama-era legislation and Executive Orders were repealed or canceled, and areas of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as nearly all offshore water, opened for oil and gas extraction.

Surveys place White evangelists, a group that has traditionally been distrustful of secular science and skeptical of global warming, as comprising 46 percent of Trump’s follower base. Trump capitalized on his followers’ views and solidified their support by strongly denying climate change in commentary on Twitter and by rolling back Obama-era climate control measures. As an article published by The Conversation acknowledged, “Donald Trump’s political strategy has been to intensify polarization and to appeal to his base.” In addition, in appealing to enclaves of skeptical supporters, Trump influenced larger portions of his following to adopt similar climate philosophies.

According to a study published last year looking into the 2016 election, politicians have a big impact on public opinion when it comes to climate change. In fact, the study found that the influence of Trump on widespread climate beliefs was so great that his candidacy may have been primarily responsible for polarizing the recent climate debate in America - with Trump’s election as president encouraging his opponents to take action against climate change while pushing his supporters to challenge the gravity of global warming. Researchers interviewed both Trump supporters and opponents and found that people who were more supportive of Trump also likely denied the reality of climate change, while people who were less supportive of Trump were more likely to acknowledge the severity of climate change. Furthermore, they found that Trump supporters’ acknowledgment of climate change grew weaker after Trump was elected president, while the acknowledgment of climate change by Trump’s opponents grew stronger after Trump became president.

Further, research shows that the partisanship of climate change increases significantly every year. In 1997, the numbers of Democrats and Republicans who believed the effects of global warming had already begun were almost equal. A decade later, as our politics had become more polarized, the gap between Democrats and Republicans widened from nearly zero to 34 percent. In 2010, 76 percent of Democrats said the effects had begun, while only 42 percent of Republicans agreed. Recent figures are even more dramatic. During the 2016 presidential election, 95 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters said they were very concerned about climate change, compared to only 40 percent of Trump supporters.

Trump’s campaign was arguably the most extreme example in United States history of a politician drumming up doubt in American scientists. However, other conservative politicians were likely enabled and empowered by the Trump campaign. It is almost certain that Trump will not be the last politician to raise doubts when it comes to climate change and global warming, and likely, if the current trend continues, the climate debate will only become more and more politicized over the years. The Trump administration signaled a new era in America, in which public rhetoric emboldened by politicians’ claims prevents us from enacting real reform.

According to Australia’s National Centre for Climate Restoration (Breakthrough), climate change is what stands between us and extinction. A 2018 report by the think tank issues a dire ultimatum: “Climate change is now reaching the end-game, where very soon, humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.” Right now, our response is split along party lines.


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