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Nowadays, climate change in America is embedded into the nation’s political landscape, where any passion or apathy towards climate action carries with it a polarizing connotation. Once upon a time, the politics of America did not regard climate change with such hostility. Tracking the relationship between the two reveals the factors that led to today’s partisan divide. One of these major factors is business interests and the parties’ dependence on these interests.
The science surrounding climate change came into discussion as just that: science, not politics. In the 19th century, with the massive upheaval in fossil fuel production, scientists introduced the concept of climate change. This was the phenomenon, “by which certain gasses created by humans trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere” (Worland). It wasn’t until the 1960s that climate change shifted from the scientific realm to that of policies and legislation. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s scientific advisory committee informed him of carbon dioxide emissions getting trapped in the atmosphere (Worland). Although this concept entered politics in the form of a warning, the urgency of combating carbon emissions was still not yet apparent.
In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen disrupted the calm feelings politicians had for climate change, saying that it was “time to stop waffling on the subject” (Worland). Scientists had confirmed the causal relationship between greenhouse gasses and global warming. From there, both parties initiated efforts against greenhouse emissions. In 1988, President Bush addressed environmental issues and the topic of climate change. “These issues know no ideology, no political boundaries,” he said, “It’s not a liberal or conservative thing we’re talking about” (Worland).
Combating greenhouse gas emissions focused on regulating businesses that produced these emissions in bulk. The involvement of business interests was the largest step towards climate change becoming bipartisan. In the 1970s through the ‘80s, firms like Exxon began to cut their climate change research (Worland). Furthermore, groups like the Global Climate Coalition began to sow doubt in the public regarding the science of climate change. This coalition brought in politicians’ support by lobbying them. As such, the doubt they sowed proved successful. The legitimacy of climate change science became a major topic of debate.
Republicans have an ideological foundation built on business interests, so fighting back on regulations and caps put on greenhouse-producing business became a more definitive Republican stance. The Supreme Court deemed in 2007 that regulating greenhouse emissions was a federal issue, putting pressure on politicians like Geroge Bush Jr (Worland). Fast forward to the Trump administration, which had pushed back on federal climate action by prioritizing business interests. On November 15, 2022, Trump said that people aren’t talking about the threat of nuclear weapons. This, he claimed, is because they’re—wrongly—too focused on environmental issues like sea levels rising despite the fact that “the ocean will rise 1/8 of an inch over the next 200 to 300 years” (Vogt et al.).
Firstly, this is incorrect, as The US government’s National Ocean Service predicts that sea level along the U.S. coastline is projected to rise, on average, 10 - 12 inches in the next 30 years, which will be as much as the rise measured over the last 100 years (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Secondly, the belief that environmental issues are not pressing and that they’re stealing the attention away from other issues is a dangerous ideology. It asserts that because climate change is so political and divisive, it steals attention from other political issues. However, climate change should not require immense effort to convince politicians to enact change. Misinformation and narratives of “distractions” only deepen climate change’s roots in the political sphere, as it divides the public’s opinions more and garners polarizing support in both parties.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “2022 Sea Level Rise Technical Report.” Oceanservice.noaa.gov, Feb. 2022, oceanservice.noaa.gov/hazards/sealevelrise/sealevelrise-tech-report.html#:~:text=The%20Next%2030%20Years%20of.
Vogt, Adrienne, et al. “Fact Check: Trump Makes False Claim about Sea Level Rise.” CNN, 15 Nov. 2022, edition.cnn.com/politics/live-news/midterm-election-results-updates-11-15-22/h_97cb8c2610129c87653f79e82718d7cf. Accessed 27 Dec. 2022.
Worland, Justin. “Climate Change Used to Be a Bipartisan Issue. Here’s What Changed.” Time, 27 July 2017, time.com/4874888/climate-change-politics-history/.