Political polarization and the structure of American democracy are key impediments to decarbonization policies in the United States.
U.S. citizens do not have fundamentally different views about climate than their counterparts in other countries. A poll conducted by Politico and Morning Consult in December 2021 found that 69% of Americans are very or somewhat concerned about climate change, with 38% in the very concerned category. Particularly in terms of very concerned citizens, this result is similar to that found for peer countries. In France, 31% of citizens are very concerned; in Japan, 36%; in Germany and the U.K., 37%; and in Canada, 40%. This raises the question of why climate policies look so different in the United States than in other countries, particularly the UK and EU.
The right-left divide
In the United States, the overall opinion on climate disguises a strong split between right- and left-leaning voters. Of the 13 countries surveyed, the United States had the largest ideological divide on the issue of climate, with 97% of left-leaning voters, but only 51% of right-leaning voters expressing concern about climate change. But still, a slight majority of right-leaning American voters are concerned about climate. Shouldn’t this result in some concern about climate among right-leaning politicians?
The divide in climate opinion between left and right is a symptom of the polarization and tribalism in American politics today. The Democratic (on the left) and Republican (on the right) parties have become increasingly divided over time, with certain issues identified with one party or the other. Partisan rancor ramped up during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations but accelerated further during the Trump Administration. President Trump governed with an “us versus them” philosophy and any cooperation between the parties became anathema to strong partisans.
Concern about and action on climate change are now identified with the Democratic Party. As the partisan divide has widened in the past few years, the number of Republican politicians favoring policy to address climate change has declined. For example, the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus was founded in the House of Representatives in 2016, with a requirement for equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. The Caucus reached 90 members by the 2018 election, still evenly split between parties, but nearly half of its Republican members lost their seats in that election. Democrats took control of the House of Representatives that year and Democrats replaced many moderate Republicans. The requirement for equal representation disappeared and today, of the 63 members of the House Climate Solutions Caucus, only 22 are Republicans. Moderate Republicans in general have become an endangered species.
Republicans have become less likely to advocate or vote for climate policy. And for the slight majority of right-leaning voters that are concerned about climate, voting in accordance with that concern would require voting for a Democrat, a step many are not willing to take.
Climate change not perceived as a priority
Economic and social issues tend to drive party membership, with climate a secondary concern, especially for right-leaning voters.
The imperfect, skewed democracy in the United States compounds the effect of political polarization. Senators and the president are not elected in a one person, one vote manner. When the US Constitution was written, delegates from smaller and less populous states were concerned that their interests would be overpowered by those of larger states. The compromise that came out of this dilemma gave every state two seats in the Senate, while seats in the House of Representatives are apportioned by population. The Senate also has strong rules to protect minority opinions, giving Senators from less-populous states disproportionate power compared to the number of people they represent.
The over-representation of small states continues into presidential elections. The US president is elected not by direct vote, but by a body known as the electoral college. Each state gets electoral votes equal to the number of Congressional representatives it has. For example, the most populous state, California, gets 55 electoral votes, while the least populous, Wyoming (along with several other small states) gets 3 electoral votes. One electoral vote in California represents approximately 720,000 residents, while an electoral vote from Wyoming represents 194,000 residents. Additionally, in nearly all states, the electoral votes are winner-take-all, meaning that the candidate that wins the state gets all the electoral votes whether the election is a squeaker or a landslide. (Two small states distribute their votes somewhat proportionally.)
Surely the framers of the US Constitution did not intend to favor one political party or viewpoint, but the reality today is that this imperfect democracy favors Republicans. Rural voters that tend to lean Republican are over-represented in the Senate and in voting for the President. For example, the Senate today is evenly split between the two parties, with 50 Senators each. However, the Republican Senators represent 43.5% of the US population while Democrats (and independents that caucus with Democrats) represent 56.5%. This fact holds over time – Republican Senators last represented a majority of American citizens in 1998, although they held the majority in the Senate for 15 of those 24 years. The same factors played out in the 2016 presidential election, which Donald Trump won by 77 electoral votes even though he got 2.9 million fewer actual votes than his opponent.
The need for a new narrative on climate change
Voter polarization and a system that (currently) favors one political party have come together to make the politics in the United States very different than in peer countries with similar levels of public concern. The political system outlined in the Constitution is not likely to change, so climate policy in the United States will require a change in the level of political polarization around climate. Clearer understanding that the changing climate affects everyone might help. Some politicians are beginning to frame climate not as an environmental issue, but one affecting the safety and livelihood of millions of Americans. This is a good development.
In my mind, a skilled and charismatic politician in the Republican party could be a game changer for climate policy in the United States. Strong views on climate are expected on the left, but a right-leaning justification for climate action, focused on jobs and competitiveness, safety and security, could move the needle among the American right, a necessary condition for ambitious federal climate policy.