101 Request: How’d we get so polarized on climate change, and what can we do about it? Plus: Joe Biden’s climate plan.
If you listen to the science, it’s abundantly clear that we’re killing the planet through carbon emissions, pollution, and waste. The world is growing warmer; significant weather events like hurricanes, floods, heat waves, and wildfires are more frequent toady than even ten years ago. The U.S. will need to address climate change more directly than how it does so now.
It turns out most Americans feel this way, though there’s significant differences among the public when filtering by political affiliation. That difference can be traced back to how polarized the issue is between the major political parties; that polarization has played a huge part in why we haven’t done more. So how’d we get here? What can we do to move forward? Reader Lindsey C. asked about this and more in her 101 Request:
I’m very concerned about climate change and would like to learn about [Joe] Biden’s environmental platform. […] Additionally, I’m interested in how climate politics evolved into a mainstream issue on the left (from the Paris Agreement to the Green New Deal), as well as the argument against climate change from the right and/or climate deniers.
When looking into this, I was fortunate to find a 2018 paper by Cale Jaffe, Director of the Environmental Law and Community Engagement Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law. In it, Jaffe goes through the history of the relationship between climate change research and politics before discussing ways we can move past partisanship and find real results.
For this piece, we run through the history climate change politics, why this issue became polarized, how we can overcome partisanship, and some details on Biden’s climate plan. Jaffe’s paper, “Melting the Polarization Around Climate Change Politics,” is one of the sources for the history section, and it’s the primary source for discussing solutions to partisanship. Other sources are linked throughout this piece.
A Brief History of U.S. Climate Research and Partisanship
Roughly speaking, we’ve known about climate change and its potential effects for about 70 years.
Research in the 1950s and 1960s provided evidence of dangerous increases in carbon dioxide emissions. Scientific consensus increased through the ’80s, when some leaders and researchers collectively came to understand we needed to make some drastic changes in order to lower our emissions.
The politics around this took much longer to come to the same point, as the collective feeling that this was “tomorrow’s problem” stuck around. But by the early ’90s, this seemed like it was going to change. In 1992, the U.S. and other countries came together in Rio de Janeiro for an “Earth Summit,” which laid the ground for future international policies and strategies.
Throughout this period, this wasn’t a polarizing issue between the American left and right. By some accounts, both sides took climate change pretty seriously or at least they said as much. Even in the 2000 presidential election, both Al Gore and George W. Bush talked at length about environmental policy and lowering carbon emissions. (Of course, the public began to split on this at the time, and Bush would act differently as president.)
Eight years later, both Barack Obama and John McCain went so far as to support a cap-and-trade policy to address carbon emissions. But this particular race also served as the “seeds of polarization,” as Jaffe put it.
From here, addressing climate change and environmental stewardship were largely abandoned by the Republican establishment. The science was increasingly questioned while proposed policy measures were deemed too expensive or a form of over-regulation. Meanwhile, the left’s concern with climate change grew. Since the ’08 election, we’ve seen other developments like the Paris Climate Agreement, tremendous support for concepts like a Green New Deal, and growing clout for groups like the Sunrise Movement.
So what exactly happened? The simple answer: The fossil fuel (oil, gas, coal) industry worked hard to influence laws and public sentiment over the past several decades. Ultimately, they 1) downplayed and discredited the science, 2) lobbied lawmakers to preserve the unsustainable status quo, and 3) misled the public to keep pressure to a minimum.
The Republican Party, being much closer to corporations than the Democrats, were more easily convinced to mortgage the future. Additionally, as we’ve taken longer to do something about the climate, the stakes have become higher and the need more urgent. As we delay implementing policies, these interventions become more expensive, providing another point of contention.
Now we have President Trump, who has clearly shown he’s taking cues from the oil and gas companies that contribute heavily to his campaigns. Trump has spent a significant portion of his term undoing environmental regulations, reneging on international agreements, and boosting our dependence on fossil fuels. Not only are these actions objectively bad, but Trump’s constant questioning of climate science (and science in general) encourages climate change skepticism among his supporters.
How to Overcome the Divide
It’s important to note here that Republicans are not united in how they feel about climate change. Still, a majority of this party’s voters (and a small portion of Democrats) don’t think the federal government needs to do more. So what can we do to span this gap and break the political logjam?
In his 2018 paper, Jaffe shares others’ expertise on how the debates about climate policy typically go. Developments at the state and federal level in addressing climate change can be hard to achieve. They usually require navigating the sway that interest groups and lobbyists have with lawmakers while balancing what’s in the public’s best interest and what constituents want in the present moment.
Conflicts between these different components is why things frequently stall. Legislators who are friendly with corporate lobbyists decide not to take action despite their constituents’ concerns. Talk of “the public good” gets drowned out. Pressure from green groups can also alienate moderates who otherwise would have remained a part of the conversation.
This last part is especially important moving forward, as there’s growing consensus that bipartisan coalitions are crucial to future success. The solution, according to Jaffe, is to stop operating within these frames—in other words, change the conversation from one that prompts “picking sides” to something else.
One such example would be focusing on how much better our collective and individual well-beings would be if we pursued aggressive climate policies that ultimately would boost our economy. It’s harder for opponents to attack a framing like this one, in which we talk less about the upfront cost and more about the long-term boom in prosperity (and equity, tangentially).
I should say here that this doesn’t mean such framing is free of opposition. The Green New Deal and the climate/green economy plans that several Democrats proposed throughout this recent primary season all have their share of detractors. But, by touting the huge positive impact that such plans could have on the economy, one of the most common excuses for not pursuing aggressive policies is almost moot.
In his paper, Jaffe also discusses how the period we’re currently in, the “Trump moment,” could be an opening for environmental groups to boost moderate and conservative support. Since the President has “triggered a seismic shift in the ground underneath all political actors,” the conventions and norms under which environmental groups usually operate can be broken. Some might be disillusioned with the existing political system since Trump took office; they might be more open to working with those across the aisle.
Groups like the bipartisan Climate Leadership Council have taken advantage of this shift by including people across the political spectrum, discussing how climate change threatens to drive up costs in different industries and sectors, and making the case for corporate social responsibility and the free market’s place in a greener economy.
Some of these solutions are also useful on an individual level. If you’re speaking one-on-one or to groups, focus on how climate change, something that at times can seem abstract, can personally affect you or your neighbors frequently. Find common ground, talk about how solutions will also solve non-climate issues, and (maybe most importantly) be patient.
When writing this piece, I reached out to Jaffe to better answer the reader’s question. One of the first things he pointed out was, despite Trump’s record on environmental policy, we have seen progress elsewhere:
“As far as climate policy goes, it has been really interesting to see state governments step up to lead in the face of a Trump administration that has been as openly hostile to environmental and conservation values as any presidential administration in modern history.”
States like Virginia and California have taken their own steps in addressing emissions and pollution. Not only does this help diminish the damage caused now, but state-led efforts also offer clues as to how we can more widely take action.
Of course, this approach only gets us so far. Western states, which have taken more ambitious steps than most others, are still experiencing more heatwaves and droughts, which also last longer. Here and elsewhere, we’re seeing extreme weather events like hurricanes and floods occur more frequently. We still need a much larger and farther-reaching strategy because climate change does not abide by state boundaries and jurisdictions.
It’s not enough for groups like the Sierra Club and state leaders to take the initiative within their means. We need leadership at the national level, and it would be useful for such leadership to be bipartisan. However, most current lawmakers who support climate change policy are on the left—Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey championed the Green New Deal in their respective chambers, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar all included strong climate change policy in their platforms for the Democratic presidential primary (in addition to other candidates). But what about prominent Republicans?
I asked Jaffe about this when I reached out. After all, environmental stewardship was something Republicans have at least talked about seriously until recently. Plus, one could argue that taking a more serious position on climate change would be in a Republican leader’s future interest, as younger Republican voters were more likely to think the federal government needs to do more to address it.
Jaffe’s example: Sen. Mitt Romney. Romney has said he believes the climate science, is a member of the Climate Solutions Caucus, and has said a carbon tax—something that until recently was wildly unpopular on the right—would be a step in the right direction. When he was Governor of Massachusetts, Romney was even proactive about reducing coal use and pivoting hard to renewable energy.
But Jaffe also pointed out that, as a candidate for the presidency in 2012, Romney backed away from these stances. And more recently as senator, he also questioned the merits of the Green New Deal (he described it as “silliness”), opting instead to support mostly market-based solutions.
It’s hard to say how many others on the right feel the same way as Romney, but in any case it will take some time before the broader climate movement is appropriately bipartisan. That’s not ideal, as the window of opportunity to properly address climate change is closing quickly.
An Ambitious Climate Plan from Joe Biden
This brings us to Joe Biden’s climate plan, which is a story in two acts. His initial plan was released during the Democratic primary, which wasn’t taken that seriously by progressives. This summer, he released a more ambitious plan which includes more public investment and faster timelines for some goals.
The plan’s current iteration excels both in particular policy measures and messaging. Let’s start with the policies.
Biden’s plan is very much a climate plan and and an economic plan. The overall goal is to regulate and build our way to eliminating carbon pollution from the electric sector by 2035 and achieving net-zero emissions throughout the economy before 2050, all while creating millions of jobs and improving economic equality.
Within four years, Biden would have the U.S. invest $2 trillion to improve the country’s infrastructure, make the energy, transportation, and agriculture sectors more sustainable, and bolster worker and union protections. Here are some of the measures a Biden administration would take:
- Coalesce innovators by establishing the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which would deal with inventing better clean energy tech (e.g. more efficient power grids), lowering the cost so they’re competitively priced with nonrenewable sources (e.g. solar energy), and improving sustainability across sectors
- Invest heavily in general infrastructure projects using more sustainable materials for new construction, and making existing structures more sustainable; new construction and weatherizing existing ones (housing, schools) would create 1 million new jobs
- Bolster transportation by mobilizing the workforce to make existing means of travel greener, creating a state-of-the-art national rail system to rival that of Europe and China, and providing ways for local communities to improve their own public transportation systems.
- Invest in community well-being by improving access to clean water, expanding access to high-speed internet, and repurposing Brownfield properties
- Super-charge the auto industry by incentivizing demand electric vehicles through tax credits, investing in research to improve electric vehicles (cars and buses), and strengthen fuel economy standards, all of which would create 1 million new jobs
- Organize immediate efforts to clean up waste and pollution, creating 250,000 jobs
- Better incorporate the agriculture sector by improving farm sustainability, utilizing farms to help decarbonize the air, and improving legal protections and labor rights for farmers
A lot of these are ambitious measures that you’ll find in other plans. But to see all of them included in a single strategy that ramps up this quickly is quite remarkable.
I’m particularly drawn to how this plan incorporates housing. New construction would address the severe affordable housing shortage we’re experiencing in the U.S.; weatherizing existing buildings could save residents as much as $500 a year.
There are also deliberate signals toward racial diversity and equity. For example, investments in innovation research includes more money for HBCUs. The plan also explains that disadvantaged communities—which are disproportionately more diverse than the general population—would be targeted for the benefits of these investments. All in all, environmental justice is an important outcome of this plan.
The $2 trillion price tag over four years is funded primarily through an increase to the corporate tax rate, according to The New York Times. In other words, he would undo part of the GOP tax cut passed in 2017.
The plan’s language and messaging is significant, as it reflects some of the approaches I highlighted earlier. For starters, it paints this plan as a solution not just to climate change, but to an economy reeling from the pandemic and Trump’s mismanagement. This framing could make some inroads with less liberal voters and lawmakers.
I do find it interesting that, in the original plan, Biden explicitly names the Green New Deal as a “crucial framework,” while the newer plan makes no mention at all of the GND. I would guess that’s intentional—tying it to the GND could play into the surrounding partisanship. However, this plan is clearly “a Green New Deal in all but name,” as one writer put it.
Even with removing that reference, Biden’s plan seems to score high among progressives and environmental groups who had knocked his original plan. Most notably, the Sunrise Movement’s Varshini Prakash stated publicly that this was a good improvement on Biden’s part, particularly because of the new timelines for the clean energy goals. Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who campaigned for president mostly on a climate action platform, similarly endorsed the plan.
Overall, this plan meets the urgency of the moment—the climate emergency, the years-long neglect of our infrastructure, and the ailing economy. Implementing this is a different story. Not only would Biden need to win and assume office, but the Democrats would also need to win a majority in the Senate and likely abolish the filibuster. If this doesn’t happen, we’re all losers for it.
- Here’s a review of the U.S. Senate’s history of climate policy, dating back to 1992.
- Trump’s attack on environmental laws is well-documented. Both the Brookings Institute and more recently The New York Times (paywall) have tracked some of the biggest rollbacks Trump has championed. There’s also this piece from The Atlantic, an account of how the Trump administration’s relationship with the fossil fuel industry killed a plan to improve our power grid—and save people billions of dollars in energy costs.
- The New Yorker’s John Cassidy opined (paywall) we need to eliminate our obsession with the GDP and recalibrate our understanding of “economic value.”
- Politicians aren’t the only ones with ideas. In an interview on Vox, MacArthur Genius grant fellow Saul Griffith explained we can revolutionize our energy sector by 2035 and create 25 million jobs—right now.
- I found PolitiFact’s explainer on Biden’s plan to be an excellent summary.
- The Washington Post shows exactly how far we have to go to meet Biden’s clean energy goals, with charts (paywall).
Additional info on Biden’s plan:
In researching Biden’s climate plan, I found that the initial version was much more specific in what Biden would do, less so on the specific outcomes. In it, the campaign listed actions he would take “on day one” and within his first year in office.
Here are some of the goals of Biden’s day-one executive orders (this is not an exhaustive list):
- Significantly restricting methane emissions
- Raising the bar on energy-saving standards for appliances and buildings
- Investing more in research on biofuels
- Requiring companies to publicly disclose info on their own emissions
- Improving protections of wildlife refuges (including undoing Trump’s environmental law rollbacks)
Here are some goals Biden wants to meet in his first year in office (again, non-exhaustive):
- Creating an “enforcement mechanism” to make sure we meet our clean energy goals
- Increasing public investment in research and the private sector
- Coalescing innovators by establishing the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which would deal with inventing better clean energy tech (e.g. more efficient power grids), lowering the cost so they’re competitively priced with nonrenewable sources (e.g. solar energy), and improving sustainability across sectors
The first version of this plan also included numerous points about holding polluters responsible, as well as more language around environmental stewardship. Some of these are included in this newer plan, and I would expect Biden to include the rest elsewhere:
- Corporate Accountability and Foreign Affairs – hold high-pollutor corporations and nations accountable through new regulations, new taxes, and better international trade agreements
- Environmental Stewardship – improve regulations and procedures for water use and safety; institute a moratorium on offshore drilling in the Arctic and altogether transition away from offshore drilling by doubling offshore wind output within 10 years