by Casey Fischl
Across the globe, countries acknowledge climate change as a scientific fact and have been implementing mitigation and adaptation strategies as per their commitment in the Paris Agreement. This, however, is not the case for the United States where political leaders are still debating and questioning what 97 percent of climate scientists agree on: climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.
Climate change has become a signature partisan issue in the United States. Why is the culture around climate change so different in the United States than almost every other nation in the world? Some argue that a combination of politics and psychology have led the American public to either deny the existence of climate change entirely, or perceive its consequences and rapidity differently than reality.
There is a clear partisan divide over climate change beliefs, perception, and policy support. The Yale Program on Climate Communication surveyed Americans on a variety climate change topics and found that 91% of registered Democrats believe global warming is happening, while only 52% of registered Republicans believe the same.
Climate change was not always this divisive political issue. In fact, George H.W. Bush called for bipartisan action on global climate change during his presidential campaign in 1988. As early as the 1960s, policymakers were made aware of the heating effect on the atmosphere caused by trapped carbon dioxide emissions. And by 1988, NASA scientists testifiedbefore the Senate Energy Committee to inform the government that this was an issue that needed to be addressed as soon as possible. Politicians on both sides of the aisle promised to take an aggressive approach on global warming and greenhouse gas emissions.
In the early 1970s, public support for increased spending on environmental protection was almost the same between parties; Democrat support was generally only 10 points higher than Republican support. By the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994, a noticeable gap in pro-environmental voting in Congress became apparent and voters began to follow cues from party leaders and political pundits.
The political divide over climate change and environmental protections has only grown wider and more extreme in the last decade. President Trump often referred to climate change as a hoax throughout his campaign, has moved to reverse Obama’s climate change regulations, signed executive orders to aid the fossil fuel industry, and withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement.
Despite this partisan gap, 69 percent of all Americans support strict CO2 limits on existing coal-fired power plants. Sixty-six percent of Americans now feel they have seen enough evidence to justify action to combat climate change which is an increase from 51 percent in 1998. And yet, very little has been done by the United States government to combat climate change, likely because of the polarization of parties in the Congress and Senate.
Part of this partisan divide is the perceived disconnect between economic health and environmental protections. Many conservatives believe that environmental regulations have dampened the success of American businesses. However, some of the regulations Trump has promised to remove from the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts have been extremely beneficial for public health, which increases overall productivity in a lifetime. Additionally, the Clean Air Act costs $0.5 trillion in compliance while generating an estimated $22.2 trillion in savings for the United States. The country’s GDP actually increased by 212 percept and private sector jobs increased by 88 percent between 1970 and 2011, so perhaps these important environmental protections are not as damaging to the economy as Republicans believe.
A healthy environment is actually a critical contributor to a thriving economy. Climate change is likely to have severe impacts on the economy. Global climate change is predicted to change growth zones and shorelines, cause human migration, and eventually change the way fossil fuels are used by industry and people. The agricultural sector is likely to be hit the hardest; places where we grow crops now might become too arid or too wet with a changing climate. With sea level rise, people have already begun to migrate and will continue to do so in increasing numbers.
World renowned economist and 2018 Nobel prize winner in economic science, William Norhaus, developed a powerful and effective economic policy to combat global climate change. His model would send a market signal to cause a shift in the global economy by implementing a carbon tax. In an interview with The Daily Podcast, Norhaus explains that we cannot expect big corporations to change their methods purely out of altruism. By implementing a global carbon tax, consumer will consume less carbon intensive electricity and companies will begin to transition to renewable energy as it will become cheaper to invest in.
Norhaus’ market shifting carbon tax will require the cooperation of all nations to be effective. But if implemented in the next two to three years, the tax could help the world avoid the 2 degrees celsius warming of the planet that will lead to drought, devastating storms, and severe loss of coastal habitat.
While it is unfeasible to pass this sort of tax in the current administration, it is critical that the winner of the 2020 presidential election be on board with this type of economic policy regardless of their party. Republican Senator John McCain worked hard to try to pass cap-and-trade legislation alongside Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, and did more than any other U.S. politician to advance the conservative argument for climate action. Republican leadership must follow in Senator McCain’s footsteps to ensure global economic prosperity for future generations.
Voters who are concerned about climate change should appeal to their representatives about climate action for a healthy economy. Bipartisan leadership is crucial in the next three years if we want to avoid some of the most severe impacts of climate change.
Interested in learning more about William Norhaus’ theory? Listen to this podcast: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/19/podcasts/the-daily/climate-change-un-report-carbon-tax.html