How did Climate Change become a US partisan fight?


I don’t have a solid answer to the captioned question. Survey data I’ve examined indicates the liberal/conservative split on climate is something new — since roughly the 1997 Kyoto Treaty.

My simplistic answer is:

  1. Kyoto was divisive because implementation fit very naturally with Democrat values emphasizing top-down control of the economy and international cooperation. Opposition fit naturally with Republican small-government values where Kyoto was seen as a path to larger, more intrusive government; and probably to slower growth.
  2. Kyoto was promoted by Al Gore. That was not a good choice for winning bipartisan support.
  3. Because Gore was pro-Kyoto, GW Bush had to be anti-Kyoto. Both those men affected the opposing party like fingernails on a chalkboard.
  4. The deflection around 2007 in above chart seems to support my last speculation: while both Obama and McCain proposed positive GHG action, the Kyoto concept was identified with Obama. That association was similar to the “Al Gore effect”.
  5. Gradually values-based disagreement over what-to-do-about-GHG was turned into a division over “The Science” and denialism was born. I don’t know why that happened.

For a more thoughtful analysis, there is the 2012 piece by Andrew Hoffman in Stanford Social Innovation Review Climate Science as Culture War. Andrew also examines ways to reach a negotiated social consensus. 

(…snip…)Climate change has become enmeshed in the so-called culture wars. Acceptance of the scientific consensus is now seen as an alignment with liberal views consistent with other “cultural” issues that divide the country (abortion, gun control, health care, and evolution). This partisan divide on climate change was not the case in the 1990s. It is a recent phenomenon, following in the wake of the 1997 Kyoto Treaty that threatened the material interests of powerful economic and political interests, particularly members of the fossil fuel industry.3 The great danger of a protracted partisan divide is that the debate will take the form of what I call a “logic schism,” a breakdown in debate in which opposing sides are talking about completely different cultural issues.4

This article seeks to delve into the climate change debate through the lens of the social sciences. I take this approach not because the physical sciences have become less relevant, but because we need to understand the social and psychological processes by which people receive and understand the science of global warming. I explain the cultural dimensions of the climate debate as it is currently configured, outline three possible paths by which the debate can progress, and describe specific techniques that can drive that debate toward broader consensus. This goal is imperative, for without a broader consensus on climate change in the United States, Americans and people around the globe will be unable to formulate effective social, political, and economic solutions to the changing circumstances of our planet.

One of the best qualified to comment on the partisan development is Roger Pielke Jr — for example, his 2007 blog post Why is Climate Change a Partisan Issue in the United States? I don’t wish to simplify Roger’s analysis, but will just note that he begins with the conflict between Al Gore and George W. Bush.

2 thoughts on “How did Climate Change become a US partisan fight?

  1. Naomi Oreskes traces the partisan split back to the entry of the George C. Marshall Institute (inventor of the “scientists are divided” tactic over smoking) into the fray.  It was almost certainly financed by FF interests; they know where their money is, and what happens if they can no longer value their stuff in the ground as reserves because the law will force them to leave it there.

  2. Interesting… She says it was 1989 that Marshall switched focus to AGW.

    When I read this part of interview I thought “gee, she would fit right in at a Manhattan penthouse dinner party”:-). That doesn’t make her origins research wrong, but this doesn’t sound like someone who has done the hard work to examine the alternatives:

    But now the question comes – should the government support nuclear power? Well, there’s a lot of problems with nuclear power. There have been a lot of extreme difficulties, including the very high cost of it. To say that this is going to solve our problems without engaging in a serious discussion about why nuclear power has not succeeded so far, that’s, as I said, discussing the issue with one eye closed.

    What does this conversation really look like when you open your eyes wide open, both eyes, and you don’t succumb to techno-fideism but ask yourself a serious, honest question: “what do we know from history about the successes and failures of large-scale technological systems, and can we learn any lessons from that?”

    The answer is yes, and it strongly suggests we will not solve this problem with some kind of massive reliance on nuclear power. Possibly modest reliance in certain cases, almost certainly not with large-scale reliance without serious costs.

    I also was unimpressed with the canned anti-GMO rhetoric she used to discredit Stuart Brand and Mark Lynas on the importance of having access to GMO techniques to cope with warming impacts.

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