Doubting Science Along Party Lines: The Polarization of Climate Change

Curator's Note

The catastrophic consequences of climate change predicted by scientists are evocative and enticing topics for media coverage. From predicted famines, flooding, wars, and death, the foreseeable future under extreme global warming rivals Judeo-Christian descriptions of the apocalypse. Why, then, have international and national environmental protection policies stalled?

Though these doomsday prophecies have been covered by the media, depending on the orientation, the topic of climate change is given quite different coverage. Justified by the journalistic appeals to balance and fair treatment, skeptics are often given equal coverage with scientists. The controversy and polarization of climate change have become just as newsworthy as climate change itself and serve as political obstacles to environmental protection policies.

The clip from the Colbert Report satirizes the opposition and contrariness that has become typical of Republican politicians. "The Word: Sink or Swim" contextualizes a law since approved by North Carolina Republicans that provides direct political oversight on climate change research. In response to a recent scientific consensus that sea levels will rise up to 1 meter by 2100, North Carolina has made it illegal to use these predictions for property evaluation. Acting as a climate-skeptic Republican, Colbert applauds North Carolina for hiding from the facts and using political power to change the reality of climate change. He doubts the research of the "so-called 'scientists'", and is concerned only with his beachfront property. The abandonment of science as authority and the reliance on political power to change the truth reflects the polarization surrounding the issue of climate change.

The North Carolina law is just one example of the separation of environmental action along party lines. It is now all but fact that Republicans are traditionally skeptical of climate change policies (see Gauchat, 2012; Jacques, 2009) and Democrats are traditionally supportive. Additionally, the prevalence of this polarization in the news media cannot be ignored.

Focusing on the controversy and the inability for politicians to communicate removes attention from the true issue: preventing and mitigating the effects of climate change. If Republicans and Democrats are trapped in gridlock exacerbated by media coverage, the consequences may be irreversible, the issue may forever remain unsolved, and the world may be vulnerable to catastrophic threats to its survival.


 This is a very important issue, and the questions you raise are central. I agree that polarization acts in these cases as a diversionary tactic from the material realities needing immediate address, and redress. I was likewise flabbergasted by the North Carolina law, but am much more deeply disturbed by the widespread denialism in both word (on the Right) and lack of substantive action (on the still-business-first Dem side) of which this law is only a more naked extension. I think that the Republican/Democrat division on the issue of climate change is smaller than their convergence in terms of prioritizing corporate interests over the large-scale restructuring necessary to shift direction toward sustainability. They also both continue to bask in a dangerous US exceptionalism that refuses to even consider that American economic interests and high consumption lifestyles must submit to the global interdependence our way of life jeopardizes. Even in the superficially polarized debates about climate change in the US, the issue is only ever about how it might (or might not, if it's denied) affect the US. In this way, the differences between parties might actually serve both of their interests in keeping the greatest issue facing our collective future peripheral in the minds of voters. Because nobody is going to get voted into power if they actually seriously threaten to change the profit margins of large corporations or smaller businesses alike, or if they suggest to the American public that it owes it to the world's non-American humans and ecosystems to substantively change how their lifestyles are predicated on suicidal consumption of the earth's limited resources (parodied so nicely by Colbert's dig at the "illegibility" of metric to Americans - only the system used by the entire world except the US, Liberia and Burma, apparently).

Submitting American interests to anyone else is not possible in this two-party, corporate-funded electoral system, and I'd wager that the manufactured polarization is maintained for purposes of garnering ideological consent without representing truly different plans of action. The fact remains that media coverage of the severity of environmental change in this country is paltry, and it has been effectively effaced from this election cycle. Obama's green economy initiative is insignificant next to the continued oil drilling, Keystone pipeline, and so on. Perhaps, then, the supposed polarization-as-stumbling-block is actually embraced by both sides as an excuse to continue to do nothing.

Responding to the opposition does appear to be easier and simpler for most politicians than addressing real environmental concerns, which is truly a shame. Especially in recent elections, the environment has nearly faded completely from view in favor of other topics. When American voters are at the polls, they are more likely convinced by those talking about their needs at the present time. The far-off and unrealized consequences of climate change are lost on the immediacy of voting, ideology, and self-gratification.

The navel-gazing focus of American media and politicians only becomes more egocentric when one considers the predicted effects of climate change, which predict the worst and most harmful consequences falling on the developing world. Without the infrastructure, military, and economic power of the United States, many countries are at risk of being punished for the mistakes of foreigners (both in causation and failure to mitigate). 

You bring up great points about the egocentricity of the United States, which Colbert does satirically hint at. The polarization of climate change and the battle between the aisles has become more important than actually creating change or creating action. The blame cannot be placed merely on the Republicans, though, as you point out, for the Democrats are just as eager to participate in the polarized conversation than propose change.

Which voice can break through the clamor? I believe that the media has a part to play in giving experts and plans media coverage and the invitation for those same people to speak before the Congress can be issued. I also believe in the strength and potential power of youth movements, environmental protests, and change at the organizational and local level. If the problems are stalled at the top, the only choice is to enact change from below.

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