Idea #23

Climate Change as a Political Problem

by Michael Jones-Correa

The science of climate change points  overwhelmingly in a single direction: the data show that the Earth is gradually, inexorably warming, with unpredictable consequences for humans (see here).  Though we might expect some disagreement about possible responses, that there should be some kind of coordinated policy response seems clear from the data.  However, agreeing on a response has been difficult, certainly across nations and particularly in the United States, where agreement on the scale of the problem or even the existence of human-led climate change remains unresolved, at least politically.  So why is climate change such a difficult political problem?

In liberal democracies the politics of climate change are exacerbated in two ways.  The first has to do with the democratic political system, which operates on the short time horizon of elections, complicating policy decisions regarding social and natural processes with much longer time horizons (say decades rather than years), and for which the policy consequences may be quite serious, not to say catastrophic, but far removed from the political timeframe.  The second is the increasing fractionalization of politics, with representatives and voters sorting themselves into mutually exclusive ideological camps, and seeing their partisanship as an important part of their identities.

Election cycles in liberal democracies— every two years in the US House of Representatives—mean that elected officials, who can be characterized as “single-minded seekers of re-election,” pay attention to the near future rather than the longer-term time horizon of issues such as climate change, whose full effects may not be felt for decades.  In theory, short election cycles make representatives sensitive to public opinion, however, the public’s stance on issues seems increasingly driven by voters’ partisan identities.  There is quite a lot of evidence indicating that in the United States the public takes positions 1) that follow the positions adopted by elected officials of their own party, 2) that express their alignment with their party (see, here, here, here, and here); and 3) that are the contrary of positions taken by partisans of the opposing party (see here, here, and here).

Partisan polarization shapes debates around policy issues ranging from gun control to immigration to climate change. In particular, partisanship as a social identity contributes significantly to motivated reasoning: when individuals are confronted with information that accords with their preexisting beliefs they easily accept them, but when new information cuts against existing beliefs, it is subjected to intense scrutiny (see here, here, and here).  Motivated reasoning makes persuasion through the provision of new information or reasoned debate exponentially more difficult (see here, here, and here).

There is some indication, however, that politically fraught topics such as climate change can be fruitfully addressed.  One avenue is to remove the topic from a partisan framework, with impartial actors providing information, and providing spaces for participants to listen to and engage with the views of others in ways that do not denigrate their sense of self-worth.  In addition, people may be persuaded to re-examine their positions on issues through the introduction of external shocks or focusing events (see here and here).  As the effects of climate change become more evident in people’s daily lives, this may well lead to a re-evaluation of their views, and an increased willingness to consider policies to address these changes.   Broader shifts in public opinion may be accelerated if spurred by congruent shifts in elite opinion.  As public opinion changes, so will politics.  Finally, in many liberal democracies, even if policy change is blocked in one venue, change can be pursued in others. For example, even as national level institutions in the United States have been resistant to addressing climate change, states and localities have been more successful in implementing a range of strategies.

In sum, climate change is as much a political problem as it is a scientific or technical one.  The short time horizons of democratic politics and the partisan polarization of public opinion have stymied climate policy debate and implementation. Finding ways around these obstacles is key to working toward any climate solution.

Michael Jones-Correa is the President’s Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Immigration (CSERI) at the University of Pennsylvania.