Climate heats up political divide

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — Over the past decade, Republicans have increasingly denied global warming and Democrats have increasingly expressed belief in its existence.

The gap between the two parties increased 30 percent between 2001 and 2010—a “depressing” trend that is essentially keeping meaningful national energy policies from being considered, argues Aaron McCright, associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University.

“Instead of a public debate about different policies to deal with global warming, a significant percentage of the American public is still debating the science. As a result, we’re failing to significantly address one of the most serious problems of our time.”

The study is published online in the journal Sociological Quarterly.

An analysis of 10 years of data from Gallup’s environmental poll shows that 29 percent of Republicans in 2010 believed the effects of global warming have already begun, a drop from 49 percent in 2001.

The percentage of Democrats who believe global warming effects have already begun increased from about 60 percent in 2001 to 70 percent in 2010. All told, the gap between “believers” in the two parties increased from 11 percent in 2001 to 41 percent in 2010.

A similar trend held for people who identify as either conservative or liberal. The gap between conservatives and liberals increased from about 18 percent in 2001 to 44 percent in 2010.

Among liberals and Democrats, having a college degree increases the likelihood of reporting beliefs consistent with the scientific consensus; among conservatives and Republicans, having a college degree often decreases the likelihood of reporting such beliefs.

The results are consistent with the prevailing theory that explains how political polarization occurs n the general public.

“In the last few decades political elites have become polarized on climate change. This has driven the political divide on this topic within the American public, as regular citizens have taken cues from ideological and party leaders they trust.”

The process has been magnified over the past decade by the emergence of media outlets where citizens can seek out news and ideas that reinforce their values and beliefs. Citizens at either end of the political spectrum can get very different daily information on global warming that further strengthens their opposing beliefs about what is real.

“Unfortunately, this is not a recipe for promoting a civil, science-based discussion on this very serious environmental problem,” McCright says. “Like with the national discussion on health care, we don’t even agree on what the basic facts are.”

The political polarization on climate change is not likely to go away in the near future.

“Many Republican Party leaders have moved further to the right since the 2008 presidential election. We’ve also seen attacks on climate science by Tea Party activists. It seems like climate change denial has become something of a litmus test for Republican candidates,” McCright says.

“This continued elite polarization on climate change means that the general public will likely remain politically divided on climate change for a while.”

More news from Michigan State University: