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Wed September 26, 2012
30 Issues: Why You Should Care About ... Climate Change
It’s been said so many times, it’s hard to even find an original source. Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but not her own facts.
When it comes to climate change, though, there seem to be two versions of the facts – the Democratic and the Republican.
Democrats largely align themselves with the scientific consensus (and it is a remarkably strong consensus; at least 97% of climate scientists are in agreement) that climate change is happening and largely human-caused. In contrast, climate change denial has become a litmus test for Republican political candidates.
It’s forced many candidates, like Mitt Romney, to back-pedal to put distance between themselves and their previous actions. For example, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney helped create the Northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – the first regional carbon cap-and-trade system in the nation. Now, he says that cap-and-trade is wrong because it would stifle economic growth.
While the partisan difference is most notable when comparing candidates, it’s evident in the electorate as well. In Massachusetts, self-identified Democratic voters are five times more likely than Republicans to be convinced that human-caused climate change is happening and poses a serious threat.71% - nearly three quarters - of Massachusetts Democrats are convinced that human-caused climate change is happening. In contrast, the majority (57%) of Republicans do not believe climate change is happening or caused by humans.
How did denial of science become a partisan issue? One possible explanation comes from a field of psychology known as cultural cognition. The basic idea is that our personal values color our perception of everything, even science. If a scientific finding contradicts deeply held values, we tend to discount it. The conservative focus on limiting government regulation and being independent and self-sufficient could make it difficult to accept science that indicates a need for concerted, large-scale action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Ironically, though, studies have shown that those same values can actually motivate individual action to conserve energy with at least the same effectiveness as belief in human-caused climate change.
For candidates trying to win general election, though, it’s not just about Republicans or Democrats. The staunch opposition to climate action voiced by many Republican candidates is not only out of line with the scientific community; it’s out of sync with the majority of Americans. Multiple polls in recent years have shown that, ignoring party affiliations, the majority of Americans are convinced climate change is happening (in fact, already affecting our weather). 56% of Massachusetts residents think that the federal government should be doing “a lot” to address climate change, but only 7% think it is. And 60% of Americans say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports legislation to reduce the federal income tax, while increasing taxes on fossil fuels by an equal amount.
Views on climate change are unlikely to decide elections this year. There are just too many other pressing issues weighing on the hearts and minds of American voters. When asked to rank the challenges facing our nation and state, Massachusetts residents – even those who voiced concern about the threat of climate change – consistently ranked climate change near the bottom of the list, after issues like health care and joblessness. The nationwide focus on economic issues is reflected in the fact that climate change is quite possibly the biggest non-issue in this year’s elections.
The environment and economics are far from separate, though. The perceived nature of the connection is perhaps the biggest difference between President Obama and Mitt Romney when it comes to their stances on climate action. President Obama has tried for the past two years to make the case that a green tech economy is the win-win answer to both our environmental and our economic woes. Romney – and Republicans more broadly – take the opposite view, espousing the idea that environmental regulations will cripple economic recovery. As a result, voters’ take on the candidates’ economic plans may well determine the course of federal climate action (or inaction) over the next four years.
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