"Americans and Climate Change: Closing the Gap Between Science and Action" (PDF) is a report synthesizing the insights of 110 leading thinkers on how to educate and motivate the American public on the subject of global warming. Background on the report here. I’ll be posting a series of excerpts (citations have been removed; see original report). If you’d like to be involved in implementing the report’s recommendations, or learn more, visit the Yale Project on Climate Change website.

This chapter tackles one of the biggies: partisanship (I’ll publish the first half today, the second tomorrow). This was, in my own opinion, one of the weaker chapters, probably because the carefully balanced set of conference participants and the scrupulously apolitical tone of the report prevent its authors from stating the obvious: Democrats are begging for bipartisan action on climate change. It is Republicans that remain resolutely partisan on the issue. But please, share your thoughts in comments, especially if you disagree.



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Climate change is a partisan issue in today’s America. The policy stalemate in Washington, D.C. has left those committed to action uncertain about whether a partisan or bipartisan strategy is more likely to succeed going forward. For all its direct costs, partisanship has also had profound spillover effects, chilling public engagement on climate change throughout our society and compelling many people to take sides instead of collaborating to craft policies and actions as warranted by the science.

This report has already touched on the issue of partisanship, but it is so critical to explaining the science action gap that it deserves its own thematic category. It has also discussed other important societal divisions that could usefully be bridged, such as that between the religious community and scientists. But the division between our political parties, at both the leadership and rank-and-file levels, is clearly one of the deepest fault lines in today’s America. It is impeding societal action on climate change and many other issues on which we can ill afford delay.

Despite glimmers of bipartisanship in the U.S. Senate and in some Statehouses, climate change today remains the subject of a long-running stalemate. The direct costs of partisanship are displayed most flamboyantly in the theater of Washington, D.C., where even tentative forward steps, such as the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, have been held up for years. Partisanship has, by most accounts, grown more intense and uncivil in recent years. If this can be reduced, whether by a natural down-cycle or some intentional campaign to boost civic responsibility among elected officials — at least on the issues where we can least afford it — it could go a long way toward advancing progress on climate change.

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When Did Climate Change Become a Partisan Issue?

The story of partisanship and climate change is a topic that deserves more analysis and probably book-length treatment to answer fully. But it is worth exploring a key inflection point from our recent past. Partisanship on the issue intensified during the 1997 debate over the Kyoto Protocol, according to an important study conducted by political scientist Jon Krosnick, a participant at our Conference (see Krosnick et al.,"The Impact of the Fall 1997 Debate About Global Warming on American Public Opinion," Public Understanding of Science, Vol. 9, No. 3, 2000: 239-260).

The Clinton Administration initiated a concentrated campaign to build support for the Kyoto Protocol on October 6, 1997, at the White House Conference on Global Climate Change. Krosnick’s content analysis documents how the volume of media coverage intensified during the October-December period of that year, in tandem with the Administration push. Interestingly, polling of Americans before and after this period shows that the percentages of Americans who believed global warming was occurring (77 percent), would continue to occur (74 percent), was a bad thing (61 percent) and constituted a serious or very serious problem (32 percent) stayed roughly the same.

Underneath this aggregate stability, however, Krosnick found that the debate had dramatically polarized the population by party, not just in terms of preferred policies but also perceptions of the problem’s scientific validity.

Before the Clinton Administration push and associated media coverage, for example, the percentage of strong Democrats who thought global warming was happening (73 percent) was only slightly higher than the number of strong Republicans who thought so (68 percent) — a 5 percent gap. Afterward, this 5 percent gap surged to 18 percent. This pattern was replicated on other questions.

Other more recent data shows that the partisan gap has persisted on the issue of climate change. Steven Kull’s 2005 PIPA survey found that 62 percent of Democrats perceived a scientific consensus on climate change, as compared to just 41 percent of Republicans.

An important question here is whether attitude change is stickier in the opposite direction: once an issue has become polarized, can that polarization be reduced on roughly the same timeline, or a faster one? How would one accomplish this? By varying the partisan identification of the key messengers, for example? This and other mechanisms can and should be tested through research in political science, psychology and other social sciences.