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Kate Zerrenner headshot

Political Polarization Over Climate Change Isn’t as Bad as You Think

New data from America in One Room suggest that the reality about political polarization over climate change in the U.S. is far more nuanced than assumed.
By Kate Zerrenner
Climate Change

Rising waters in the Bayou River near downtown Houston after Hurricane Harvey in 2018. Photo via Trong Nguyen/Adobe Stock.

The dust is still settling on the climate negotiations at COP26. The Senate is debating the biggest climate change bill ever. Most Americans, however, do not name climate action as a top priority. But new data from America in One Room, a program of Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy and nonprofit partner Helena, suggest that the reality is more nuanced.

Climate change isn’t an issue in a vacuum

Researchers continue to poll the American public for shifting attitudes on climate change, and that shift is noticeable, but it’s also showing an increasing polarization. In May 2021, Pew Research released results indicating deep divides between generations, with younger generations, even those leaning or identifying as Republican, backing action on climate change. But as an indication of the polarization of the issue, in a later poll, Pew found that people identifying as Republican are also less enthusiastic about pursuing renewable energy —this despite the fact that red states like Texas have reaped a financial windfall from it.

America in One Room found in its climate and energy project that, if people from all points on the spectrum were allowed the space to have in-depth deliberation about the problem and the solutions, they tended to move in the same direction.

The two-day workshop, the largest controlled experiment of its kind, was held in September 2021 — after the release of the latest IPCC report and heading into COP26. Nearly 1,000 randomly selected Americans gathered to discuss climate change in depth. The participants included 54 percent female, 51 percent college-educated, 35 percent from the South, 18 percent from the Midwest, and ran the gamut in age, race and political beliefs.

Californians and Texans were oversampled to allow researchers the ability to evaluate the differences between the biggest blue and red states. “On almost every question,” Jim Fishkin, Director of the Stanford Center for Deliberative Democracy told TriplePundit, “the participants from the two states moved in the same direction: toward strong majority support for climate action… It is striking to me that the largest red state and the largest blue state ended up after deliberation with so much agreement on what needed to be done.” In particular, he added, the areas that ended up being closest were for solutions such as eliminating coal, oil and natural gas, and developing new sources of nuclear power.

The organizers noted that the deliberation led to greater consensus, in part, because it didn’t treat climate change as operating in a vacuum. “We believe deliberative polling is just a better, more rigorously scientific and representative method of gauging public opinion than traditional survey and siloed workshops,” Henry Elkus, founder and CEO of Helena, told 3p.

Getting at the polarization issues nationally meant looking at climate in a wider context. “They considered policy proposals within the context of global U.S. economic competitiveness and the impact of certain policies on low- and middle-income Americans,” Elkus said. “Through this lens, climate action isn’t something that needs to supersede other priorities, but rather, can be part of integrated solutions that address the evolving and very interconnected challenges we grapple with today.” Thus, just like sustainability within a corporation, when it is integrated throughout operations rather than a standalone program, it’s more likely to be effective and long-lasting. Climate change impacts every segment of the economy, so isolating it silos the solutions as well as the problem.

Make it personal

Americans have drawn further apart on not only what actions to take on climate change, but whether climate change is happening at all. But as the impacts are felt more intensely at the individual level, denial that something has changed is harder to support. Impacts such as sharp uptakes in insurance payouts from farmers and the multilayered effects of the “megadrought” in the western U.S., among others, affect individuals and communities. When massive floods arrive at your house three years running, you notice.

Further, the process was set up to enable conversations. Ahead of the workshop, participants received a 64-page briefing document, which presented the pros and cons of different policies for achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, including phasing out of fossil fuels, introduction of a carbon tax and methane standards. The larger groups were split into subgroups to discuss the issues over two days, reconvening at the end to share their results and ask questions of a panel of experts. The uptick in support for action was notable. For example, when Californians and Texans were asked whether the U.S. “should take serious action to reduce greenhouse gases in our atmosphere because waiting to do so is taking an irresponsible risk with our kids’ future," Californians went from 72 percent to 80 percent in support, and Texans went from 67 percent to 79 percent, running almost even with each other.

Elkus found the levels of agreement encouraging. “I think it was striking to see everyday Americans arrive at conclusions around climate proposals that seem to confound the policymakers tasked with solving these challenges,” he told 3p. “Across the board, with incredible nuance and depth, participants arrived at compelling solutions to some of the greatest challenges we’re collectively facing.”

Making climate change personal is not only about the impacts it has on the individual, but it is also about individuals coming together to find the solutions. What seem like intractable problems are not in reality: They are political problems rather than technical ones. The organizers of the workshop hope that participants will become more civically engaged as a result of their experience. “We are driving the message that Americans are not irreconcilably divided,” Elkus said, “and can come together to create meaningful inputs for decision makers around these issue areas.” Fishkin added that the deliberative methodology used can drive depolarization. As the Senate debates the massive climate bill, they could take a page from a deliberative playbook and get in one room tackle climate change.

Image credit: Adobe Stock

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner