Why is it that our planet’s environment and climate change are such politically divisive topics in America today? At the extremes some would say, because they shouldn’t even be topics while others would say, because we’re running out of time to save the planet. I get both responses, but I’m interested in why we respond the way we do. Why is it that one side or the other is labeled as Republican or Democrat? Let’s take a look.
It’s clear that many Americans view environmentalists or environmental activists as Democrat? Do they want it to be so? Do Republicans want to disassociate themselves from both labels? If you look at our history, there’s really no connection between political parties and environmentalism. I’m reminded of watching my favorite hockey team when they’ve played inconsistently; they play the whole first period in their offensive zone and then they play the whole second period in their defensive zone. It’s like they changed jerseys between periods. Democratic and Republican administrations have done the same. How did this happen?
How many of you relate to the following associations? Republican are conservative and Democrats are liberal. We already know these associations are held by a majority of American voters. How about these associations? Republicans are anti-environment and Democrats are pro-environment. You’re not going to like this part, but you know it’s true. Many Americas extend these labels so much further.
Republicans = right-wing, fascist, conservative, racist, anti-environment, pro-life, and they hate all Democratic presidents, VP’s and so on.
Democrats = left-wing, socialist, liberal, non-racial, pro-environment, pro-choice, and they hate all Republican presidents, VP’s and so on.
How many of you hate me now? Just know, I didn’t make this up. This is reality for many Americans and it’s easy to see why.
Here’s another question for you. Was Theodore Roosevelt a Democrat or a Republican? It’s cool if you google it before replying. I’m curious about your thoughts, because many would define him as the first and greatest president for environmental advocacy. He signed into law the Antiquities act, giving presidents the authority to proclaim federal lands as National Monuments. He created 5 national parks and 50 wildlife refuges, set aside 150 million acres of timberland and helped create the US Forest Service. As a Republican, he may own the title as the most positively impactful environmental president. Yes, he was a republican.
Few need to be reminded that Richard Nixon was a Republican, but how many recall that the EPA was erected under his administration? His Clean Air Act forced the EPA to create and enforce air pollution regulations. I can tell you, from personal experience, this act improved the air quality in Southern California in a big way.
So, how did we become so divided on environmental issues? Forty years ago, environmental scores were pretty evenly distributed in the house and the senate. Today, it’s very different. So much so that politicians and candidates, on both sides, are afraid to dissent. The Pew Research Center shared the following insight. “When it comes to getting news about politics and government, liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds. There is little overlap in the news sources they turn to and trust. And whether discussing politics online or with friends, they are more likely than others to interact with like-minded individuals.”
What makes matters worse is our ignorance about both parties. “At one level, these conclusions are hardly surprising. After all, previous research has shown that Democrats and Republicans have wildly false notions of the demographic make-up of the opposing party. Similar to the relationships I cited earlier, Democrats think Republicans are older, richer, and more Evangelical than they really are. Republicans think Democrats are more secular, black, and gay than they really are.” Shockingly, studies have shown that the most “politically disengaged” Americans are fully three times more accurate in their estimates of political opponents.
This is where social media plays a large role. We follow the groups, people and organizations that hold similar views to our own and then we’re bombarded by their headlines and quotes. With so much bombardment and limited time to qualify, research or even read what’s behind the headline, we simply file it as true or false and move on.
There’s plenty of evidence indicating that we’re letting ourselves be manipulated by a “news bubble” of our own creation. Christopher Bail and colleagues from Duke University surveyed a large sample of Democrats and Republicans, who visit Twitter at least three times each week, about a range of social policy issues. One week later, they randomly assigned respondents to a treatment condition in which they were offered financial incentives to follow a Twitter bot for 1
month that exposed them to messages from those with opposing political ideologies (e.g., elected officials, opinion leaders, media organizations, and nonprofit groups). Respondents were resurveyed at the end of the month to measure the effect of the treatment, and at regular intervals throughout the study period to monitor treatment compliance. They found that Republicans who followed a liberal Twitter bot became substantially more conservative post-treatment.
There’s an amazing amount of material being written today about America’s political divide. There’s also a great deal of ongoing research taking place and most of it makes clear, we’re losing focus on real issues. We’re not seeking facts or truths. We’re seeking acceptance and easy answers for complicated issues. We’re doing this via social media.
You may have read this far, because you wanted me to tell you why your views on climate change and our environment are wrong. However, it's more likely that you read this far expecting that I’d offer some confirmation of your own views on the subjects. After all, you probably found this piece on an environmental page somewhere on-line and inside your “news bubble”.