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We’re Not Polarized on the Environment—Elites and Activists Are

The US Capitol Building where federal lawmakers meet. ©O.J./Wikimedia Commons
The US Capitol Building where federal lawmakers meet. ©O.J./Wikimedia Commons

To many people, the world they live in feels more polarized than ever. From vaccines and gun control to pretty much everything in-between, the public square can often feel more divided than ever. But is that actually the case?

The environment is unquestionably one of today’s most pressing—and polarizing—issues. But recent studies indicate that this may not be the case with the general public. Instead, at least where the environment is concerned, the divide appears to be largely driven by activists and the politically minded.

Could it be that the partisanship that is so prevalent in politics spills over into wider issues of the environment and the climate change agenda, prompting people to feel the need to “pick a side” in the debate? This is certainly what some believe—and the ramifications for the climate change agenda could be profound.

The Public View on Climate Change

While the perception around the climate change debate may be that it is deeply divisive, in reality, the figures do not bear that out.

In fact, the Pew Research Center found that the majority of Americans are in broad agreement on the subject, with nearly two-thirds stating that protecting the environment should be a top priority for the President and Congress, a big increase since 2011. A majority of Americans (63%) also said that stricter environmental regulations were worth the cost.

But dig down into the numbers, and the impact of politics begins to reveal itself. The same research found that 71% of Democrats said policies aimed at reducing climate change generally provide net benefits for the environment, compared with roughly a third of Republicans (34%).

The Political Picture

In Washington, the gap between how the two parties vote on climate change was not always a chasm, but it grew significantly during the Trump Administration.

Despite the two main parties voting along similar lines in previous decades, they began to diverge in the 1990s. According to an analysis by the nonpartisan League of Conservation Voters (LCV), during President Donald Trump’s time in the White House, Democrats in Congress voted for pro-environment legislation 92% of the time on average, compared with 5% for Republicans.

Divisiveness Driven by Elites?

The impact of those divides at the very top of politics filters down to ordinary Americans but, in a bizarre kind of symbiosis, ordinary people from the fringes of the debate also influence public opinions. These fringes are often shaped by vocal broadcasters, thought leaders, and media outlets.

A study authored by Leaf Van Boven, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado, and David K. Sherman, professor in the University of California-Santa Barbara’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, found that public attitudes about climate policy are shaped, at least in part, by these elites.

The research also found that—perhaps not surprisingly—people were more likely to share the environmental stance of those that shared their general politics rather than take the opposite view. Crucially, the research found that the impact of these political elites, in terms of how it caused polarization, presented a barrier to tackling climate change.

"Research found that the impact of political elites, in terms of how it caused polarization, presented a barrier to tackling climate change."

Their report said: “Central to the information deficit and related models is that public opinion should be based on unbiased integration of available scientific evidence.

“Yet recent findings demonstrate that, in the absence of probative information, signals from politicians, thought leaders, and other political elites can strongly influence public attitudes about climate policy.”

“Ordinary people weigh the stances of political elites to such an extent that they sometimes place ‘party over policy.’”

The Politics of Division

But what drives this polarization in politics and how does it impact the environment? A 2018 paper, also partly authored by Van Boven and Sherman, delved deeper into just why and how partisanship reared its head and divided people along political lines.

They found that the results of a national panel experiment and in-depth interviews with four former members of Congress suggested that Democrats and Republicans—both ordinary citizens and policymakers—supported policies from their own party and reactively devalued policies from the opposing party.

Their paper found that these partisan views occurred both for policies historically associated with liberal principles and politicians as well as for conservative principles and politicians.

Put simply, while many people may have similar underlying views on environmental issues, once politics enters the mix, they often feel compelled to “pick a side” and reject the other side’s view, simply on principle. This can result in people gravitating towards a particular view they feel aligns with their chosen party.

Origins of Discord

The causes of polarization have deep-rooted social and economic causes, with divisive rhetoric and media coverage often shouldering most of the blame. But experts believe a big part of the problem resides in the way party politics in the United States itself is structured.

In his 2018 book, Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself, Yale political science professor Ian Shapiro argued that polarization on both right and left has been fed by the increasing number of “safe” seats for both parties in the Senate and House. For many candidates, this has meant that the only vote worth winning is in the primary—and this has resulted in candidates moving towards the fringes of issues for fear of being knocked off in the primary.

"Primaries are often marked by very low turnout and people on the fringes are disproportionately voting in them, with the same being the case of caucuses."

Shapiro explained that primaries are often marked by very low voter participation rates—and people with strong views tend to vote disproportionately in them.

Yale political science professor Ian Shapiro. ©Mara Lavitt. Yale University
Yale political science professor Ian Shapiro. ©Mara Lavitt. Yale University

One example he cited was the Tea Party’s successes after 2009, which were driven by candidates who won very low-turnout primaries (for example, 12% to 15% voter participation in some congressional districts). The same was true in some Democratic primaries, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset win over incumbent Democrat Rep. Joe Crowley with an 11% turnout in New York’s 14th congressional district.

With the fringes of politics having more of a say on which candidates win their primaries and then make it to Washington, the risk becomes that their voices on issues, including climate change, are the ones that become the loudest. Meanwhile, the wider, more moderate views that may be broadly aligned—regardless of political party affiliation—are ignored as they simply do not win enough votes.

Perception Is Key

A paper written by Van Boven and others in 2015 said that while polarization was real, the extent of that polarization was often exaggerated. Analyzing thirty years of data, they found that Americans “consistently overestimate polarization between attitudes of Democrats and Republicans.” Those that perceived the greatest polarization were also the more likely to be politically active.

Their report found: “We suggest that people perceive greater political polarization when they (a) estimate the attitudes of those categorized as being in the ‘opposing group’; (b) identify strongly as either Democrat or Republican; and (c) hold relatively extreme partisan attitudes—particularly when those partisan attitudes align with their own partisan political identity.”

This perceived polarization could be a factor in how people “pick a side.” They assume their party affiliation would have a particular stance on climate change, and they feel compelled to adopt it accordingly.

Real-world Impact

So, in the real world, how can this have an impact on the climate change agenda?

Van Boven et al.’s paper, “Psychological Barriers to Bipartisan Public Support for Climate Policy,” cited the case of Rep. Bob Inglis who was elected in a heavily Republican district in South Carolina. During his first congressional stint, he was a vocal skeptic of man-made climate change.

However, during his second congressional stint, he was persuaded by family members to publicly acknowledge the reality of climate change. Having previously opposed a cap-and-trade climate policy, he proposed an alternative revenue-neutral carbon tax—and was beaten in the 2010 primaries by a Tea Party conservative.

The implications were clear: Break with party orthodoxy on climate change at your peril.

Hope for the Future?

Despite the deep fault lines that run through modern American politics, Democrats and Republicans have proven capable of putting differences aside in the search for consensus on environmental issues. The Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021, which authorized the investment of over $35 billion over five years in US drinking water infrastructure, was passed in the Senate by a vote of 89–2.

In their research, Van Boven and his coauthors also said there was the possibility that these “polarized elite” may one day lose public support should leaders emerge who could reduce the polarization in public attitudes about climate change.


*Mark Smith is a journalist and author from the UK. He has written on subjects ranging from business and technology to world affairs, history, and popular culture for the Guardian, BBC, Telegraph, and magazines in the United States, Europe, and Southeast Asia.


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