The political origins of climate scepticism.

The contemporary climate change debate is characterised by strong polarisation across political lines. Generally, the left are strongly in favour of climate action, while the right are strongly opposed. This dichotomy is especially stark in the US where cooperation between Republicans and Democrats on environmental issues has proved impossible.

Historically Republicans have been more outspoken than Democrats in their advocacy for environmental protection

The perception that climate scepticism is somehow intrinsic to Republicans and conservatives is widespread. However, historically Republicans have been more outspoken than Democrats in their advocacy for environmental protection. In 1976, George E. Brown Jr., a long term champion of science and technology and leader in the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, introduced the National Climate Program Act to the House of Representatives with bipartisan support. This attempted to fix the fragmented federal climate surveillance program, and to make resource planning more effective. It was not the “prophets of doom” concerned with avoiding climate catastrophe in the future who were most interested in this bill, but representatives from largely rural Republican states who wanted scientific agencies to meet their constituents' everyday needs. This included protection from extreme weather events that may harm their loved ones, property, or agricultural way of life. From today's perspective where discussions of environmental policy are met with toxic debate, such cooperation might come as a surprise. Republican support of environmental policies grows out of concern for the ability of individuals to maintain their livelihood and freedom from danger. This stands in contrast to the liberal emphasis on preserving the intrinsic value of nature, and the well being of future generations.

Pro-environment sentiments underpinned the enthusiasm with which the Nixon administration entered the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. Nixon was famously a staunch anti-communist, a trait which today correlates strongly with climate scepticism, yet still found room to pursue environmentalism in a way that represented his constituents’ interests. Emphasis was placed on: institutional coordination; cooperative scientific research, including in atmospheric science; and, keystone environmentalist policies, such as: ocean dumping, whaling, and world heritage sites. The very particular way in which the US had chosen to view environmental issues was brought to light when compared to the different views that other nations brought to the conference. Sweden, China, and developing nations initiated diplomatic discussions that put environmental protection in the context of development, nuclear disarmament, and world peace. Here we see the type of political environment that would allow the fermentation of the debate around climate change into the toxic mess that it finds itself today. Opposing sides chose to frame the environmental issues in ways that suited their wider political agendas making the beginnings of a split in the climate debate along partisan lines. Environmental issues have different implications for the different commitments that each nation holds dear, leading to refusal to agree on how to approach environmental issues. The other nations framed environmentalism in ways which conflicted with US geopolitical interests causing the US to push back against these framings. Most notably, the US was heavily criticised by China for the use of ecological warfare in Vietnam. In response the US devalued such ecological concerns to present its actions in Vietnam more favourably, at a time when they were under great scrutiny both internationally and domestically.

The contemporary climate change debate is characterised by strong polarisation across political lines.

All the time environmental issues were only about the environment, it was possible to foster cooperation in the pursuit of solutions. Increasingly however, political concerns create disagreement on how to act. Major political actors are almost never seen to intervene in the environment in isolation, because their actions are dictated to a greater or lesser extent by other interests. In the 70’s a new right wing, born out of fear and opposition towards communism, turned its attention to the rise of a new eco-radicalism that proposed collectivist and anti-capitalist solutions to widening global environmental issues. Business interests were united with the right by concerns over the negative effects of increased regulation. Neither party was actively opposed to protecting the environment in itself, but rather feared the other implications this may have. Ronald Reagan's stance on environmental issues mirrored the rest of the right. During his campaign, he spoke favorably of renewable energy because of the independence it could afford to rural libertarian Americans. However, this support did not last past his inauguration as he rapidly reaslised the inconvenience of environmental concerns, and those who held them, for his promise of “cheap energy now”. He slashed funding for environmental research, and replaced environmental scientists who held government positions with party line zealots who would smooth the way for an energy policy that exploited fossil fuels with renewed thirst.

Several factors related to the Reagan administration added to the increasingly polarised nature of climate change debate in the 1980’s. Firstly, Reagan installed James Watt as the Secretary of the Interior. During his confirmation hearings, which were broadcast publicly from congress, he made clear his militant anti-environmentalist stance leading the administration itself to be perceived in the same way. This worried some sections of the public enough to cause a surge in donations to non-governmental environmental organisations. Secondly, Old guard environmentalist Republicans were marginalised leaving the environmental movement with no option but to move to the left in search of some political influence. Next, as the position of the administration on the environment became clear, so did the distance between it and the scientific community. Political opponents would not be doing their job if they could not exploit this by presenting Reagan to be anti-scientific, and that's just what Al Gore and other democrats did.

It is tempting to fall into a mind set in which Republicans, and those on the right, take the blame for everything on this issue, but this should be resisted. Yes, the Republicans stall discourse on climate change by acting in their own political interest, but so do the Democrats. When Gore led attacks on the administration because it refused to act in accordance with the scientific evidence he did so partly because it was politically convenient. It provided him a good basis to show that the incumbent was incompetent and that someone from his side should be put into power. Now, may be Reagan deserved this criticism, but with hindsight Gore and others might have directed these attacks differently. As it was, the Republicans were forced to double down and defend themselves by mounting a counterattack on the climate science that was being used to attack them. Republican scepticism of climate science largely grew out of the fact that it was being used as a weapon against them. Of course they were going to find a way to undermine it, it was the only way to defend themselves. .

The contemporary consensus that the green issues are the darling of the left exclusively whilst being irreconcilable with the goals of the right is misplaced. Ideologies to the right of center are intrinsically compatible with the enthusiastic pursuit of green issues, as can be seen from Republicans showing them such concern in the 60’s and 70’s. The skepticism the right has shown towards the climate crisis in particular is largely the result of the issue being presented in a way that has negative implications for other things they value. Not to mention weaponisation of climate change against them politically. Not all of this is malicious, objective analysis of the issue does make for uncomfortable reading for titans of business and the free market, but the left has also tried to exploit these facts for political gain, contributing to the toxicity of debate. Mitigating the climate crisis requires finding ways of framing the issues that are amenable to the value commitments on both sides of the political spectrum, allowing a culture of cooperation to develop in the place of the unproductive political points scoring that we see today.

By Louder Than The Storm Political Lead, MacGregor Cox


READ MORE from this series on climate denial:

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