The Polarization of Climate Change: Scientific or Political?

by Brendan Busch

Due to the intense polarization of climate change in America, Congress has had very little success in addressing it. Noting this dilemma, Dana R. Fisher, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland, Joseph Waggle, a doctoral student studying sociology at the University of Maryland, and Philip Leifeld, a researcher at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Bern, set out to identify the characteristics and roots of the polarization of the climate change debate in American politics. After examining the records of several sessions of Congress, they found that, although the general public seems to be debating the science behind the existence of climate change, Congress has reached somewhat of a consensus on the scientific proof of climate change, and is instead considering the political ramifications of legislative actions against climate change.

Fisher, Waggle, and Leifeld first assessed the polarization of the climate change issue in the American public as a whole, and identified the media as one of its key driving factors. They asserted that, by allowing equal time for both mainstream climate change scientists and climate change deniers, the media is giving the public the idea that these are two equally supported and credible positions. This need to present two sides to the issue discredits the fact that the vast majority of scientists are in agreement about the existence of climate change, unduly strengthening the position of the countermovement against climate change science.

However, an entirely different type of polarization has emerged in Congress. By thoroughly examining the 109th (Republican-led) and 110th (Democratic-led) sessions of Congress, Fisher, Waggle, and Leifeld were able to determine the source of this polarization. Unlike the American public, most of Congress came to accept science behind climate change between its 109th and 110th sessions (the amount Congressional statements denying the existence of anthropogenic climate change dropped from 23% to 11% of total Congressional climate change statements). However, there was a stark disagreement in the effects climate change legislation would have on the nation’s economy. Sixty-four percent of Congressional statements in the 109th session of Congress claimed that legislation limiting carbon dioxide emission would hurt the U.S. economy, and this number dropped only to 42% in the 110th session. These statistics reveal the true characteristics of a debate that has been mischaracterized by public discourse; although it may seem that America’s political elites are engaged in a scientific debate about the existence of climate change, they are really in a polarized disagreement about the political and economic consequences of climate change legislation.

Fisher, D. R., Waggle, J., & Leifeld, Phillip, L. 2013. Where Does Political Polarization Come From? Locating Polarization Within the U.S. Climate Change Debate. American Behavioral Scientist, 57, 70-92.

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