The divide between advocates and skeptics over whether to do something about climate change is widening, with both sides growing more certain of their convictions.
A report this week from the United Nations warning of dire consequences from greenhouse gas emissions made headlines around the world and spurred calls for action from environmental groups.
“I would have been shocked if this would have caused anybody to change what they thought,” said Andy Dessler, a professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University. “If people are persuaded by evidence, they would have been persuaded long ago.”
Experts and lawmakers broadly agree that climate change has become a more polarizing issue during President Obama’s time in the White House.
While Democrats feel that drastic government actions are necessary, Republicans are wary of taking aggressive steps that could stifle the economy, and question whether the scientific proof is strong enough to justify such action.
The skepticism of Republicans is exacerbated when Democratic lawmakers and Obama push for new regulations, such as the push for stricter fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks.
“The pendulum on climate change in the Senate all goes back to each side's fundamental belief in the role of the federal government with respect to taxing, spending and regulations,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), perhaps the Senate’s best-known skeptic of climate change.
“The alarmists of man-made climate change tend to support big government policies and believe that Washington knows best how to take care of the people rather than the local communities and families,” Inhofe said. “These policies limit freedom and make it more difficult for people to pursue the American dream.”
A day after the U.N.’s report was released, the House passed legislation that encourages the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to focus more on weather prediction. The measure passed with bipartisan support, but only after Republicans moved to strike provisions that would have prevented the agency from studying climate change, as its sponsor, Jim Birdenstine (R-Okla.) had intended.
“Those folks don’t think that this is a serious problem,” said Eric Smith, a political science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a leading liberal in Congress, said the polarization over climate change is far more pronounced in Congress than in the country as a whole.
“The denials, head-in-the-sand … it isn’t reflective of what people are thinking out there,” Grijalva said.
Recent surveys show that most people in the United States think climate change is occurring. A poll by Yale University last year, for example, found that 63 percent of people believe climate change is happening, compared with 16 percent who do not.
But those views divide sharply by political party. Eighty-eight percent of Democrats said they that agree that humans are causing global temperatures to rise in a survey last year by Pew Research Center, compared with just 50 percent of Republicans.
Dessler said the political differences have deepened since Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
“Climate change went from something that rational people could discuss to something which was a litmus test, where if you don’t hold a certain position on it, then you’re not part of the group,” he said. “It became a lot more nasty. It became like abortion, or gun control or something like that.”
James Taylor, the senior environmental fellow at the Heartland Institute, said personal liberty is at the core of the disagreements.
“On the one side, you have conservatives who are going to be skeptical of programs that are going to give government more power and influence and take away personal liberty. They are going to want to see persuasive evidence of a need for such programs before they sign onto that,” Taylor said.
“On the other hand, you have liberals who are perfectly fine with transferring more power to government and are going to be less demanding to see specific evidence,” he said.
Heartland is one of the leading skeptics of climate science. The same day as the U.N. report, Heartland announced it would release research next week showing that increased carbon dioxide — which the vast majority of scientists believe causes global warming — is in fact beneficial to the ecosystem.
Taylor said climate change is, at its core, a scientific debate. But unlike most scientific debates, it could involve massive government programs that Republicans see as infringing on personal liberties, such as a tax on carbon emissions that some Democrats have endorsed.
“The theory of relatively didn’t spill over into legislation that was going to affect people’s lives in a very personal way,” Taylor said.
If there is on area of climate change policy where Republicans and Democrats can find common ground, it is on energy efficiency. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) have strong bipartisan support for legislation they’ve sponsored that would incentivize energy efficiency in homes, commercial buildings, industry and the federal government.
Climate activists see energy efficiency as an essential part of any attempt to mitigate global warming, because it would drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but Republicans have reasons to support it as well.
“This bill has garnered such widespread support because of a simple fact — it is good for the economy and good for the environment,” Portman said in a February statement in which he and Shaheen announced a reinvigorated campaign for the measure.
“It’s part of an energy plan for America that can help bring the jobs back, help fix our trade deficit, help make our manufacturers more competitive, and actually help to protect the environment.”