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Education Won’t Fix Climate Policy — but Campaign Finance Reform Might

Powerful industrial interests have hijacked the climate debate. Until we blunt their influence, education can only go so far.

By Tania Schusler


Activists rally in support of the Environmental Protection Agency on April 4th, 2017, in New York City. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The March for Science on April 22nd in Washington, D.C., with 425 satellite events planned and the Peoples Climate March a week later, also in Washington, D.C., are expected to attract millions of citizens and activists.

As an environmental scholar, I hear many scientists lament that the United States would achieve concerted federal action on climate change if only politicians and the public understood science. But the truth is that increased public understanding of science will not necessarily lead to climate action. Before we get there, the political polarization on science needs to stop. And for that to happen, we’ll need campaign finance reform.

Science is neither red nor blue — it’s about discovering truth. Still, there is a growing partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans in their perceptions about global warming, despite similar levels of scientific knowledge among people identifying with either party.

Results of a recent Pew Research Center survey reinforce what many political scientists and sociologists already conclude: The most powerful predictors of an individual’s climate change perceptions are political ideology and party identification.

These divisions reflect a psychological mechanism referred to as “cultural cognition,” which predisposes us selectively to credit or dismiss evidence of risks, including those related to climate change, in ways that fit our existing values.

In contrast to the present political polarization on climate issues, environmental protections have historically received strong bipartisan support. Republican president Teddy Roosevelt, a leader in the early conservation movement, helped establish over 230 million acres of public lands.

Seminal environmental laws passed with sweeping bipartisan majorities during the Richard Nixon administration. The Clean Air Act passed the Senate in 1970 without a single nay vote.

Increased public understanding of science will not overcome the powerful industrial interests that have hijacked the climate debate.

Sociologists Riley Dunlap at Oklahoma State University and Aaron McCright at Michigan State University attribute today’s polarization on climate change to the organized disinformation campaign waged by the “denial machine.” Via the denial machine, fossil fuel companies have funneled money through front groups to attack climate science and scientists. Conservative foundations and think tanks have also led this ideological war, as Naomi Klein describes in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. A 2013 Drexel University study found conservative foundations, including Koch-affiliated foundations and the ExxonMobil Foundation, to be the most consistent funders of climate denial efforts.

At times, industry tries to disclaim any association with such disinformation campaigns: For example, oil giant BP has distanced itself from the American Legislative Exchange Council, which works to deny that human activities contribute to climate change. Still, leading fossil fuel companies fail to renounce disinformation on climate science and policy, and many of them continue to support climate denial through influential lobbying groups, trade associations, and political action committees.

During the 2016 election cycle, the oil and gas industry contributed over $100 million to federal candidates, parties, and outside groups. Eighty-nine percent of those contributions supported Republicans. The coal-mining industry contributed $13.7 million, with 97 percent of that money supporting Republicans.

In the Pew survey, two-thirds of Americans said climate scientists should have a major role in policy decisions about climate matters. Yet, despite strong scientific consensus that global warming is occurring thanks mainly to human activities, just under one-third of Americans are aware of this consensus.

To quote Dunlap and McCright, writing last year with sociologist Jerrod Yarush in Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development: “Two decades of news coverage and educational campaigns since 1997 have produced only modest increases in Americans’ belief in the reality and human cause of climate change, with gains among Democrats often offset by declines among Republicans.”

Increased public understanding of science will not overcome the powerful, industrial interests that have hijacked the climate debate.

The March for Science is a non-partisan movement celebrating science and defending evidence-based policymaking. The People’s Climate Movement puts forward solutions to the climate crisis rooted in social and economic justice. Both ends would be advanced well by reclaiming our democracy.

A constitutional amendment allowing Congress to restrict political spending by incorporated entities would help address concerns about the increased influence of corporations in politics since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Getting corporate interests out of politics is key to bridging the partisan divide on climate issues.

While the fossil fuel industry, conservative think tanks, right-wing media outlets, and a handful of climate change-denying politicians have made it difficult for moderate Republican policymakers to support federal climate action, they have not stymied action at other levels.

Over 500 businesses, including Johnson & Johnson and Monsanto, are urging President Donald Trump to not ignore the reality of climate change. These business leaders come from both political parties.

Over 1,000 mayors in both blue and red states have vowed to reduce their cities’ carbon emissions as signatories to the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement.

Increasing public understanding of science will not lead to bipartisan action on climate. Rather, reclaiming democracy by getting moneyed interests out of politics is the best path to address the climate crisis and protect our security, economy, agriculture, water supply, health, and infrastructure.