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The Republican Party stands alone in climate denial

Posted on 5 October 2015 by dana1981

A paper published in the journal Politics and Policy by Sondre Båtstrand at the University of Bergen in Norway compared the climate positions of conservative political parties around the world. Båtstrand examined the platforms or manifestos of the conservative parties from the USA, UK, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Germany. He found that the US Republican Party stands alone in its rejection of the need to tackle climate change and efforts to become the party of climate supervillains.

Republicans would be fringe in any other country

As Jonathan Chait wrote of Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s proposals to eliminate all significant American national climate policies,

In any other democracy in the world, a Jeb Bush would be an isolated loon, operating outside the major parties, perhaps carrying on at conferences with fellow cranks, but having no prospects of seeing his vision carried out in government. But the United States is different. Here in America, ideas like Bush’s fit comfortably within one of the two major political parties. Indeed, the greatest barrier to Bush claiming his party’s nomination is the quite possibly justified sense that he is too sober and moderate to suit the GOP.

So, what’s different about the United States? One factor is the immensely profitable and politically influential fossil fuel industry. However, Canada and Australia serve as useful analogues. With Australian coal reserves and Canadian tar sands, fossil fuels account for a larger share of both countries’ economies. Nevertheless, Båtstrand noted,

The [Republican] party seems to treat climate change as a non-issue ... this appears to be consistent with the U.S. national context as a country with large reserves of coal.

Båtstrand also found that the emphasis on free market ideology is relatively strong in the Republican Party platform. However, the appropriate free market approach to climate change involves putting a price on the external costs of climate pollution. In fact, that’s why the President George H. W. Bush administration invented cap and trade as a free market alternative to government regulation of pollutants. So, free market ideology can’t explain the abnormal behavior of the Republican Party on climate change.

Fossil fuel funds + political polarization = climate denial

The answer may lie in a combination of fossil fuel industry influence, and increasing, record levels of political polarization. As shown by the Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham, the conservative ideology score of House Republicans is the highest it’s been in over 50 years.


Republican House members’ level of conservative ideology based on dw-nominate score created by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal. Source: Washington Post

And as Nate Silver recently noted,

The most conservative Republicans in the House 25 or 30 years ago would be among the most liberal members now

The Republican Party is no longer the party of Reagan, who listened to scientists and signed an international agreement to curb pollution that was causing the hole in the ozone layer.

Silver has also shown that when voting against Democrats, today’s Republican legislators are more united than at any time in the past century. And it’s clear from the language the Republican Party leaders use that they view climate change not as a scientific or critical risk management issue, but rather as a Democrat issue. Thus, Republican leaders simply can’t accept the need to address climate change, because that would put the on the same side of an issue as Democrats.

A split in the Republican Party

However, it’s also becoming clear that during this rightward shift, Republican Party leaders are growing increasingly out of step with their own voters. President George W. Bush’s Secretary of State Colin Power recently criticized the party leaders, saying,

It should be obvious to party leaders that they cannot keep saying and doing the things that they were doing and hope to be successful in national-level election in the future, not just in 2016.

A recent survey found that conservative Republicans support accelerating the growth of clean energy, and 54% accept that humans are contributing to climate change and support putting a price on carbon pollution.


Results of an August 2015 poll question on American support of a carbon pollution tax, conducted by Echelon Insights, North Star Opinion Research, and Public Opinion Strategies, on behalf of ClearPath.

These poll results are consistent with previous surveys finding that while Republican voters generally don’t see climate change as a top priority, a majority of Republican voters support regulating carbon as a pollutant, and a plurality even support President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

Eleven House Republicans have recognized this problem, and have submitted a Resolution calling for action on climate change. So there are encouraging signs that some Republican thought leaders and policymakers are recognizing that their party leaders’ ideologically-driven rejection of the need to mitigate climate change risks is unsustainable.

Every other conservative political party in the world recognizes it.

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Comments 1 to 10:

  1. I think it is worth keeping the terms "idelogically driven" and "partisan" separate.  Once is presumably a difference based on a philosophical position - and ideology such as democratic socialism or economic libertarianism.  As mentioned, modes of regulation of GHG's exist that appeal to those idelogical positions, although we can argue about their effectiveness.

    Pure partisanism is simple identity politics.  I think of it as sports politics —  my team is good, your team is bad, no matter why you or I chose a team in the first place.  It has a simple tribal appeal, but in it's pure form eventually leads one to take positions that don't make much sense — like supporting a favorite player engaged in spousal abuse, or thinking that market based approaches to controlling fossil fuels or health care are good as long as the other party doesn't promote them.  Generally, people are more likely to double down when faced with such threats to their identity, taking ever more extreme positions to maintain some semblance of consistency.

    I think it's important to discriminate. People on opposite sides of an ideological divide can still communicate, because there is a basic logic underpinning their positions.  People on opposite sides of a sporting conflict cannot compomise, because the very purpose of such a divide is to have a "self" and an "other." It is an emotional ego-based appeal that has immense power to motivate individuals to action because they feel personally threatened.  

    I think republican strategists in the US have been very effective at using identity politics to their electoral advantage - via the Southern strategy, the urban vs rural divide, the migrant/native divide.  They are not the first party in history to do so, not by a long shot.  You can argue that is the trick of politics, to marry policy to such identity based motivation.  But they are also slowly being backed into narrower and narrower corners on a range of topics where they look to be on the wrong side of history — GHG and climate change being just one very imoprtant example.  I don't think it's a strategy that can work for ever.  

    How (or if) they will transition out of it is a really good question.  I have a feeling that they rode the bull out of the chute, fell off and are now being dragged behind it.  At times I am disheartened, but at others I think that this strategy may have reached a natural end, and maybe we will soon get to a proper discussion of what we want to do about a real problem.

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  2. The conservative government of New Zealand (the National Party) is effectively a closet anthropogenic climate change denying group. They generally don't explicitly deny the science or the observations, but they act no differently from those that do explicitly deny the science.

    They have tampered with New Zealand's (carbon) emission trading scheme, so as to render it utterly useless, spend massive amounts of taxpayer dollars trying to entice oil drilling companies here, and do everything they can to exploit fossil fuels, whilst at the same time effectively discouraging the uptake of renewables. Fortunately, a legacy of the forward-thinking nature of previous generations and governments is that around 80% of our electricity comes from renewable sources.

    The climate system doesn't care whether governments explicitly or implicity deny science. All that matters is the amount of carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere. By that standard we are all failing and the consequences are likely to be devastating.

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  3. Hopefully the record rainfalls in Carolina and the droughts & wildfires in the west will undercut their popularity as folk realise what is happening, assuming of course they actually need voters to turn out for them. The American political system is so disfunctional & corrupt they may not be needed.

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  4. Cartoonist Mike Luckovich's cartoon take on the probable cause of GOP climate denial.

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  5. Extreme partisan polarization (the team sports analogy described in comment #1 above) combined with the enormous role of monetary contributions have amplified the absurd anti-science rehtoric of the political right in the US compared to that of other countries.  

    There's also the problem that professional climate communication has settled on a three-part message that fails spectacularly with these audiences: "it's real, it's us, scientists agree." This message works well with some people, but each part is challenged by "Team Red" with some success in public opinion. 

    People don't warm the climate; heat warms the climate! We see this every day (vs night) and every summer (vs winter). There's zero disagreement about this, even with conservative audiences.

    Then we can move on to solutions. The Team Red position is that free market economies are fundamentally weak and must be subsidized by digging free stuff out of the ground. They argue that capitalism is powerless to solve an existential problem and has to roll over in the face of rising temperatures, water shortages, and rising seas. This is not consistent with free-market idelology. It is pathetic defeatism, and real conservatives need to call it out.

    The political right must not bet its future on the premise that "heat doesn't cause changes in temperature." Rather, it must engage in a vigorous and full-throated debate that the free-market can offer the BEST solutions to the world's biggest problem. Team Red has been AWOL on advocating for free-market solutions. Not only is this a LOSER position, it also guarantees that actual climate solutions will come from Team Blue. 

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  6. Not so for Australia.  Until the ousting of denialist prime minister Abbott, the Liberal/National government posted CO2 reduction strategies that are, and still are, nothing more than a fig leaf to cover entrenched denialism.  Attempts to dismantle government agencies created by the previous Labor government to foster sustainable development were only stopped in the senate.  In other cases, executive orders shut down funding for wind turbines.  Statements to the United Nations in regard to Australia's climate change policy were nothing less than obfuscation if not downright lies.  Our new prime minister Turnbull is fully up to speed with climate change but was originally replaced by Abbott over his positive stand onclimate change - so now has to play to the extreme right wing if he wants to keep his job.  On this basis, Australia needs to get a flogging when it appears with its "fig leaf" policies in Paris in December.

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  7. ... of course, there is schaudenfraude in that the climate is giving the US on average more of a flogging than most other places.  Like the gun issue, it is a interesting to see outright NRA supporters ending up gun victims.  Sad though for the rest of the population.

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  8. "climate is giving the US on average more of a flogging than most other places"

    It is? I dont think ramifications of drought in California quite on same scale as drought in Syria. The same could be said of many other weather events exacerbated by climate change.

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  9. "climate is giving the US on average more of a flogging than most other places"

    I'm really not so sure about that. Last week-end 20 persons died in Southern France (in the region often referred to as the Riviera or "Cote d'Azur") because of extreme rain and floods. Some were stuck in their garage, a family was trapped in their car in a tunnel that filled with water. Rescue workers logged over 1000 interventions with 23 helicopter retrievals.

    It didn't make the news in the US, too busy about their own catastrophic floods in the South-East. Perhaps the good legislature there can also ban the word "flood" from public discourse, like they did with "accelerating sea-level rise".

    It is rather ironic, and yet denial is as entrenched as ever in the so-called conservative part of the population. It seems that no amount of evidence and no severity of adverse event can bring them back to reality. Meanwhile, we are splitting hair about the meaning of Hansen's exact words in 1988 or some other piece of nonsense. I am becoming more and more convinced that this experiement will have to run its full course. Maybe that end result will be beneficial after all is said and done.

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  10. Comparing Republicans to actual Conservatives in other nations is pure folly because Republicans are Fictional Conservatives. Any notion that their ideas are Conservative is as fictional as the WMD's in Iraq ..... True Conservative Stalwart Barry Goldwater predicted and warned us about exactly what we are seeing today

    Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they're sure trying to do so, it's going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can't and won't compromise. I know, I've tried to deal with them.

    - Barry Goldwater, November 1994

    Shortly afterward he told the Republican Leadership

    "Do not associate my name with anything you do. You are extremists, and you've hurt the Republican party much more than the Democrats have."

    I'm sure this will be deemed too political but you cannot solve a problem by being nice and ignoring it's cause and history

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