The Politicization of Policies to Address Climate Change

Post developed by Erin Cikanek, Nicholas Valentino, and Katherine Pearson 

ICYMI (In Case You Missed It), the following work was presented at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA).  The presentation, titled “The Politicization of Policies to Address Climate Change” was a part of the session “The Dynamics of Climate Policy Support in the US” on Friday, August 30, 2019.

Climate change is a truly polarizing issue. Partisans on either side of the issue have such deeply entrenched beliefs that there is little that can change minds. But this wasn’t always the case. For example, in 1988 Democrats and Republicans were in close agreement about the amount of money the government should spend on environmental protection. More recently, partisans have become more polarized in their level of concern about climate change. 

How do scientific policy issues become so polarized, and how quickly does this happen? New research by Nicholas Valentino and Erin Cikanek measures public awareness of Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) polices, and explores whether attitudes toward these policies are as politicized as climate change overall. 

Valentino and Cikanek conducted two studies to examine political polarization of CDR. First, they surveyed a large, nationally representative sample of people to measure how much they knew about climate change. The questions covered a broad set of issues and strategies for dealing with the problem. This survey revealed that the public has a high level of knowledge about climate change. 

The study also demonstrates that partisanship is highly predictive of knowledge about climate change. Democrats responded with significantly more accuracy than Republicans did. When respondents were asked specifically about technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, overall knowledge was lower, but Democrats and Republicans answered questions with the same level of accuracy, as shown in the figure below.  Valentino and Cikanek note that “this pattern is consistent with the possibility that elite rhetoric has come to suppress accuracy on general climate change knowledge among Republicans, but this has not yet occurred for knowledge in this newer domain (CDR).” 

climate change

The second study experimentally tested whether CDR policies are sensitive to partisan cues. CDR policies have not been debated as much or as publicly as climate change in general. Are these policies as susceptible to political polarization?  

Survey respondents were randomly assigned to one of three groups. A control group was asked about current climate change policies, as well as carbon reduction policies. The first treatment group received information that applied partisan stereotypes to the CDR policies: Republican hesitation about CDR because it might hinder business, and Democratic encouragement to save the environment. The second treatment group received information that ran counter to those stereotypes: Republican support for a pro-business solution to climate change, and Democratic concern that the solution may encourage businesses to pollute. 

The partisan cues had very little effect on the response to CDR policies. Interestingly, the counter-intuitive partisan cues backfired: when Republican respondents read the treatment showing Republican support for CDR, they opposed it slightly more. The very weak effect of partisan cues on support for CDR may show that CDR policies may be more resistant to polarization. 

The more politicians discuss scientific policy issues, the more polarized the discussion tends to become. However, Valentino and Cikanek see reason to hope that compromises remain possible for issues like carbon removal, which have not yet been subjected to partisan rhetoric. 

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