Climate Change Is Becoming a More Polarizing Topic

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The gulf between Democrats’ and Republicans’ beliefs on climate change is larger than ever.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images)

As climate change becomes an ever-more pressing topic and (for some, at least) point of concern, one might assume America’s two major political parties have edged closer in their ideological stance on a warming Earth. But according to a new paper, the gap between adherents of the two major parties has only grown over time.

That fact could make the upcoming presidential election unusually important. “Whether, and how, individual Americans vote this November may well be the most consequential climate-related decision most of them will have ever taken,” sociologists Riley Dunlap, Aaron McCright, and Jerrod Yarosh write in Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development.

Dunlap, McCright, and Yarosh’s new paper is an update of one Dunlap and McCright published in the months leading up to the 2008 presidential election. At the time, Republican candidate John McCainappeared to believe global warming was real and advocated for taking some sort of action, leading Dunlap and McCright to suggest that a McCain win could do something to change average Republicans’ minds and close a gap between the left and right that had been growing since 1998.

Seventy-five percent of Democrats say we’re already feeling the effects of climate change, compared to just 41 percent of Republicans.

Regardless of what might have been, the team argues—based on Gallup’s environmental opinion polls—that the gulf has continued to widen. In the latest poll, 75 percent of Democrats say we’re already feeling the effects of climate change, compared to just 41 percent of Republicans. In 1997, when Gallup first started asking questions about global warming, those numbers were 52 and 48 percent, respectively. Similar patterns emerged for questions about human responsibility for global warming, whether news media exaggerated the crisis, whether most scientists believed climate change was real, and so on.

That’s not to say public opinion as a whole hasn’t shifted, or that Republicans aren’t coming around on climate change. Indeed, 65 percent of those interviewed by Gallup for its 2016 report believe that changes in the Earth’s temperature over the last century were due to human activity, compared to 55 percent last year and 50 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, 43 percent of Republicans believed in anthropogenic climate change in 2016, up from 35 percent last year—although that’s still much lower than the 53 percent of Republicans that accepted humanity’s role in global warming in 2001.

“In short, the results indicate that the substantial partisan polarization that had rapidly built up in the first eight years of the new millennium has not abated, but has actually grown, since 2008,” Dunlap, McCright, and Yarosh write. “[D]espite many important initiatives, [Barack] Obama’s accomplishments on climate change can be quickly eroded, and in some cases erased,” if Donald Trump wins the White House or Democrats fail to take back the House of Representatives and Senate.