Protecting the environment didn’t used to be a polarizing issue for the American public or elected officials.
In 1970, 20 million people across the United States celebrated the first Earth Day. U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who also had served as Wisconsin governor and a state senator, created Earth Day with the hope that a nationwide demonstration of concern would bring environmental problems to the attention of legislators. Nelson, a Democrat, recognizing the importance of bipartisanship on such an important subject, recruited Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey to co-chair Earth Day.
On April 22, 1970, Democrats and Republicans of varying socioeconomic statuses and geographic locations all showed up to demand action on environmental issues. After all, an unhealthy environment hurts everyone. The nation’s uniform stance successfully persuaded legislators to quickly pass new laws.
In the same year, Republican President Richard Nixon worked with a Democratic Congress to create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and to sign the Clean Air Act into law. The Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act followed in the next couple of years. The environment looked like an issue that had united the nation.
What happened? Today’s big, overarching environmental issue, climate change, has been a major victim of increasing polarization. The scale of climate change is so large that significant legislative action must be taken to address it on an adequate scale, but Congress has been unable to pass any meaningful legislation. Climate change has become a Democratic issue, and Republicans are seen as skeptics of human-caused climate change. Whether someone thinks something should be done about climate change, or even believes it exists, seems to have become more of an ideological purity test than an honest look at the science and impacts of climate change.
America has known about climate change since 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee was already talking about significant changes in climate by the year 2000 due to carbon dioxide pollution.
According to Gallup, climate change didn’t become a highly partisan issue until the late 1990s when Republican party leaders and political commentators began to take more extreme stances on climate and voters followed those cues. From the Republican perspective, it certainly didn’t help that several notable climate action advocates, including Al Gore, were Democrats. The partisan disagreement over climate change did not exist until political leaders made it one.
However, there is actually reason for hope regarding meaningful legislation to address climate change.
A 2018 study by social psychologists Leaf Van Boven and David Sherman found that a majority of Republicans, along with Democrats, believe that climate change is happening, that it’s caused by humans, that it’s threatening humans, that something should be done to mitigate the problem, and that reducing carbon emissions would make a difference.
According to the study, what’s stopping Republican voters from supporting policies to reduce carbon emissions, a widely recognized first step of climate action, is an unwillingness to break ranks with their party. When viewing the exact same carbon reduction policy, people were far more supportive when they were told the policy was proposed by their own party than when they were told it was proposed by the other party. The study also found that members of both parties overestimate the impact of polarization on their fellow party members, so they are hesitant to dissent.
While it certainly says something about the state of politics, the good news is that the current state of gridlock can be broken.
The study suggests that when Republican leaders propose a carbon-reduction policy, Republican legislators are more willing to support it, and Democrats would be supportive of carbon-reduction legislation in general. Thus, it is imperative for Republican legislators to take the initiative on climate policy. The bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus — 88 members, 44 from each party — is commendable because it starts the process of reaching across the aisle to write and approve legislation for the good of all. It would also help if Republican voters who believe in climate action discussed climate with others in their circles. In both cases, they will find that there is more agreement than they would expect.
Strong, effective environmental legislation in the early 1970s stemmed from the public’s agreement on the need for action. Such agreement is needed to address the colossal problem of climate change.
Even now, we are not as divided as we think, and today’s immense environmental problems demand an open and vocal show of unity.