Analysis Reporting

Climate Change: America’s Most Divisive Issue?

climate protest

In US politics, global warming has grown more divisive than abortion, gun control, or the death penalty.

Children in the US are traumatized by a school shooting roughly every week. Radical religion-fueled vigilantes have bombed abortion clinics and stalked and killed the doctors who perform them. But it’s not gun rights or abortion that has Democrats and Republicans most at odds today – it’s the science of climate change.

“This is sort of an ideal wedge issue, and it’s been exploited that way,” said Lawrence Hamilton, a University of New Hampshire sociology professor who specializes in the study of the environment and social change.

Laurence HamiltonFor the past seven years, Hamilton has been contributing science-related questions to the quarterly Granite State Poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center. Earlier this year, the poll guided 568 randomly selected respondents through a series of questions intended to discern what level of trust the state’s public has in the science community. Historical hot-button social policy topics were included as well.

statistical chasm opened over the recent warming of the planet, an event almost universally ascribed by climate researchers to the emission of greenhouse gases by human industry. While 83% of self-described Democrats agreed with the scientific consensus that the earth is warming chiefly in response to human activities, only 36% of Republicans accepted that conclusion.

It’s a yawning divide of 53 points, far outpacing historically contentious social issues such as support for gun control (69/36), legal abortion (61/35), the death penalty (42/67), and evolution (66/50), in a survey with a four-point margin of error.

“Things like abortion appeal to social conservatives but not economic or Wall Street conservatives, whereas climate change cuts across the whole spectrum,” Hamilton said. “It appeals to the social, the economic, and the libertarian, the whole spectrum of conservative ideologies.”

But it’s not just ideology at work, said Ben Orlove, director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University and sometime Hamilton collaborator. There are also issues of identity in play, particularly among the so-called losers in the post-industrial economy who have grown unabashedly anti-intellectual, skeptical of experts, and opposed to federal regulations, as a rule.

Granite State PollThat anti-intellectual pulse has been well channeled by the ultra-conservative tea party wing of the Republican Party, as captured by the New Hampshire poll. When asked if they trusted scientists as a source of information about environmental issues, a majority of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans said yes. A mere 28% of tea party Republicans agreed scientists could be trusted and only 23% were willing to say that humans were the main driver of climate change.

Though the poll was limited to New Hampshire residents, Hamilton said that the primacy of climate among a range of divisive policy issues is supported by other polls that he has conducted around the nation. Tom Smith, director of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, said he was surprised by the results, cautioning that New England conservatives aren’t typically as strident on social issues like abortion.

The 55% of New Hampshire residents who believe climate change is both happening now and is due to human activities is right on track with several recent national surveys. A March Gallup poll, for instance, found that 54% of Americans believe that global warming is underway. And a national survey conducted in late 2013 by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that 47% of Americans (down from 54% the previous year) believe that global warming is happening and is caused by human activity.

That may feel too much like an even split for multinationals to christen any climate-focused ad campaigns, but time (and the facts) would be on their side if they did. Consider that, despite repeated calls of climate change “alarmism” leveled at climate scientists and those who dare to repeat their findings in public, these researchers actually consistently downplay, or “underpredict”, their own findings, according to a 2012 study.

The result has been that sea-level rise, loss of sea ice, and even the pace of greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere have all occurred more quickly than predicted. Part of the reason for this process of “erring on the side of least drama”, as the authors term the self-censoring behavior, has to do with the fear of being attacked by the fossil-fuel-funded denial industry and their libertarian-leaning allies, many of whom troll climate change stories online to inject doubt.

To practice climate science today means risking death threats, just like the abortion doctors of past decades.

So what’s a concerned company that wants to promote its good stewardship to do?

If you’re thinking of marketing to conservatives about the environment, one Canadian expert in climate change communication has an idea: Just don’t. “Conservatives resonate to appeals that promise financial savings and ideally do not mention the environment at all,” explains Robert Gifford, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

If stakeholders, the board of directors, or your CEO simply insist on addressing the environment, choose your words carefully. Try peppering your copy with the word “purity”, a concept that resonates with that audience, Gifford said.

The Yale Project poll bears this out. It found, for instance, that the phrase “global warming” is far more effective than “climate change” in generating the belief that researchers both understand what is happening to the planet and that a concerted response is needed. “By contrast”, the report states, “the use of the term climate change appears to actually reduce issue engagement by Democrats, independents, liberals, and moderates, as well as a variety of subgroups within American society, including men, women, minorities, different generations, and across political and partisan lines.”

Orlove also recommends ripping a page from Obama’s playbook. When the President rolled out his plan earlier this month to slash 30% of carbon emissions from the nation’s coal plants by 2030, he called in anti-coal allies at the American Lung Association to pair his concern about climate change with more immediate long-documented health care impacts like asthma and premature death.

“Coal really has huge underappreciated public health impacts,” Orlove said. “ Yes, we want to decarbonize the economy, but you can link that with other issues rather than make it a stand-alone issue.”

Of course, as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. Referring to research he’s done in coastal communities around the nation, Hamilton added that the same party divides documented over climate change have grown across the environmental spectrum.

“It sort of bleeds over into trust in scientists generally to support for any other environmental legislation, whether it’s beach pollution, Clean Air Act, endangered species, clean water,” he said. “Clean water was once upon a time a bipartisan thing, but it sure isn’t now.”

Greg Harman is an independent journalist based in San Antonio, Texas.

This story ran originally at the Guardian Sustainable Business hub. Top image courtesy of Jay Mallin via Flickr.