Solution as Problem?: Sociologists on the Climate Wars

by Bob Perkowitz



Climate Perhaps more than any other issue save abortion, climate change solutions as developed by progressive environmentalists embodied the divide in political philosophies in America. Republicans who champion freedom, American independence and free-market capitalism while abhorring big government and tax solutions to problems found Cap and Trade and the possible Copenhagen agreement to be an anathema.
Progressives sought to address this dynamic by promoting Cap and Trade as a capitalistic, market-based solution.  However all the money generated by the scheme was routed through and redistributed by the federal government to winners and losers picked by a political, not an free-market economic system.  A government-regulated tax by any other name did not fool American conservatives.  The focus on elite, politically partisan solutions in effect fed the opposition that caused their defeat.


So over the last couple of decades, global warming became a crux issue in the polarization of America.  The current issue of The Sociological Quarterly contains a symposium exploring the politics of climate change anchored by “The Politicization of Climate Change and Polarization in the American Public’s Views of Global Warming 2001-2010” by Aaron M. McCright of Michigan State University and Riley E. Dunlap from Oklahoma State University.  The research paper uses a decade of research by the Gallup organization supported by numerous other studies to explore the partisan divide.


The partisan polarization of climate and environmental issues is now taken for granted as political realities of both parties, but McCright and Dunlap add useful perspective to the common knowledge.  Amongst these are the negative correlation between education and belief in climate science among Republicans – the inverse of the pattern with Democrats; the expectation that this  polarization is not going to diminish significantly in the near term; and that any successful strategy for political solutions is going to have to much better address the forces of “anti-reflexivity” –  primarily the political and economic forces aligned against solutions for reasons that really have nothing to do with science or climate realities.

No Responses to “Solution as Problem?: Sociologists on the Climate Wars”

  1. Wow! Rather than contributing to a constructive and rational conversation about climate change, the opening sentences of this blog just perpetuate the politicizing and the partisanship. I hope that wasn’t your intent, but I still have to take issue with a number of points. Progressive environmentalists didn’t develop cap and trade. Cap and trade has long been promoted by economists as a market-based approach (as opposed to a command and control approach of regulation) to more cost-effectively address environmental problems. In fact, it was those same “Republicans who champion freedom, American independence and free-market capitalism while abhorring big government and tax solutions” that implemented one of the first cap and trade schemes in the U.S. to deal with sulphur dioxide emissions from power plants. The idea was first proposed in the Reagan administration and implemented by H.W. Bush. The Environmental Defense Fund came on board with the idea but most other environmentalists were highly sceptical (and many still are) and felt cap and trade simply provided a license to pollute. That initial cap and trade system, however, worked extremely well in cutting acid rain.
    As for a cap and trade system for carbon emissions, many a conservative Republican was for the idea…before they were against it.
    – Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona): Cosponsored first cap-and-trade bills in the Senate in 2003, 2005, and 2007 and it was part of his presidential platform in 2008. (Even Sarah Palin was all for cap and trade when she was McCain’s running mate.)
    – Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska): From 2008, “I do support the cap-and-trade concept because I believe it offers the opportunity to reduce carbon, at the least cost to society.”
    – New Gingrich (R-Georgia): From 2007: “I think if you have mandatory carbon caps combined with a trading system, much like we did with sulfur, and if you have a tax-incentive program for investing in the solutions, that there’s a package there that’s very, very good.”
    As for picking winners and losers in redistributing the funds associated with a cap and trade system, that’s what government does. Through tax policy, regulatory schemes, the bully pulpit, etc. That’s what government has been doing for decades with incentives and tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry. And that’s what Gingrich promoted in 2007…investing in the solutions. What I would agree with is that generally the government is not very good at picking winners and losers. The position we’re in today with our reliance on fossil fuels is a good case in point. However, those free-market economic systems also aren’t very efficient or good at picking winners and losers when externalities aren’t accounted for and when there’s a dearth of information.
    That dearth of information, or at least of accurate information, is one of the problems with the current climate change debate. The study you cite offers some great insight as does a recent study by Barry Rabe and Christopher Borick, A Reason to Believe: Examining the Factors that Determine Individual Views on Global Warming.
    There are a number of reasons why there is such a divide around climate change.
    This polarization is based on values, political and social identification and is perpetuated through the media, disinformation and scare tactics on both sides. There have been huge failures in how climate change has been communicated. On the left and right, fear and guilt aren’t effective ways to communicate. People don’t like feeling scared or helpless. It can trigger denial, anger and apathy. As for the guilt trip, people may simply adjust their attitude to match their behaviour rather than changing their behaviour. We need to understand the reasons for the divide but first and foremost, we need to get accurate information out there.
    As for the study cited in your blog, one of the key statements in that study is this: “Both the fossil fuels industry and its business allies and conservative think tanks (with support from oil and coal companies and conservative foundations) worked to debunk the scientific evidence for climate change.”

  2. @Tracey Crowe: You’re missing the point! The point is that these political narratives exist. Social science is very different from physical science in both the language used and how it is practiced. Myself, I am an “environmental communications” student who is immersed in this schizophrenic context of being both a social and physical scientist…
    “kill the messenger (if you must), but hear the message” –
    As long as we keep talking like cerebral logical scientists, the conservative fringe-tanks will continue to win the culture wars and further perpetuate identity politics which threaten to derail any hope of a clean energy future.

  3. must point out: “constructive and rational” is not the basis for which national discourse evolves and it is influenced by constantly changing and dynamic elements which are uncertain, impulsive, and spontaneous. (the only thing more uncertain than the weather is the news)
    The way to penetrate this is through smart, innovative, new ways of thinking and communicating. It’s time for a NEW environmentalism.

  4. Where Cap and Trade started and where it ended were two very different places. At the beginning, a 100% auction with money going to new technologies and people who might have had difficulties with higher energy prices. At the end of the day it was a tax on citizens with proceeds going to dirty legacy carbon industries. So it lost a lot of its free market mechanism, drive the economy forward appeal…
    A next generation Cap-and-Share system, with funds generated in a state staying in the state, so for instance Indiana would not subsidize California, and with funds going mostly back to consumers, with maybe 20% kept by the state for renewable energy or other priority projects, would be much less of a government control system. It would be a tax break for the vast majority of consumers, while taxing polluters. Not a bad combination.
    In the world of Communications / Contingencies / Cultural solutions to climate change, we need to get everything right. I’d be curious, Tracey, to hear how you think we got the climate communications wrong last time and how to do it right next time.

  5. Yyyyyyyyyeah, that folderol at the start about “Republicans championing freedom and independence” is wildly inappropriate. You can come up with a frame that shows environmentalists as the true supporters of freedom and independence in about zero seconds.
    Likewise, since pollution is a market externality, appeals to free-market solutions in and of themselves can only go so far before sooner or later there has to be government intervention. And people who are ideologically opposed to government intervention under any circumstances are either going to have to be quiet or must be acknowledged as inevitable opponents to all imaginable climate protection initiatives.
    You can tell a lot about a person’s seriousness on any issue by looking at the tools they are willing to employ. If you’re serious about protecting the environment, you will support private / market AND government initiatives–as long as they work. Someone who assigns a greater priority to shrinking government programs in and of themselves, regardless of effect, is less concerned with, and less serious about, environmental protection. And that’s fine–we all have choices to make in life. But let’s call those choices what they are.

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