Want to Reduce Polarization? Pass These Climate Policies.

Collaborating on climate change could lower the political temperature

U.S. political polarization is the worst it’s been since the Civil War—it damages our democracy, our key institutions, and even our public health. Studies suggest that collaborating on equal footing towards a shared goal is an effective strategy for reducing intergroup conflict. Tackling climate change should be that goal.

The timing is certainly right for the climate. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report makes it clear that there is no more time to waste on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet a society-wide transition to renewables implemented over decades seems impossible in our democracy without bipartisan cooperation.

But is the timing really right politically for a bipartisan climate effort? Isn’t climate change one of our most polarized issues? 

Actually, there are plenty of opportunities for bipartisan climate solutions with broad public support, especially if the parties are willing to focus on climate and compromise on some other issues being debated in the current budget process. 

We recently compiled a list of policies and positions with more than two-thirds support in major national polls (we call this ‘The Two-Thirds-Majority Platform’), and a number of climate policies made this list.

Two-thirds of Americans think the federal government is not doing enough to help reduce effects of climate change and protect water and air quality. Other more specific policies include tax credits for businesses developing carbon capture and storage, large-scale tree planting efforts, tougher restrictions on power plant carbon emissions, tougher fuel efficiency standards, and a 2035 Clean Electricity Standard

We also analyzed recent state-level bills since 2015 aimed at reducing carbon emissions and found encouraging examples of bipartisanship. Over a third of all decarbonization policies during this time frame were bipartisan. Bipartisan bills disproportionately expanded consumer and/or business choices (e.g., reducing regulatory barriers to solar energy), used financial incentives for renewable energy adoption, and did not include environmental justice components that were framed either using academic social-justice jargon or non-neutrally with respect to immutable characteristics.

Bipartisanship on climate change was a feature of the bipartisan December 2020 Covid stimulus package. Its climate-related provisions included $35B for wind and solar energy development, extending federal tax credits for renewable energy, and phasing down hydrofluorocarbons by 2035 (HFC). Representative John Curtis (R-Utah) launched the Conservative Climate Caucus in June—backed by a third of House Republicans—with the goal of leading the party towards accepting climate science and bringing conservative solutions to the negotiating table. 

In the current federal infrastructure and budget negotiations, bipartisanship on climate change could again provide a path to consensus. There are two proposals being considered. The smaller bipartisan proposal focuses on improving physical infrastructure and includes provisions and incentives promoting electric vehicles. Some Democrats say this bill does not go far enough on climate. They have a larger, partisan budget resolution that has additional climate policies such as a national clean electricity standard and consumer-level benefits including clean energy tax credits and heat pump rebates. This resolution includes larger appropriations for electric vehicle infrastructure, sustainable building upgrades, and grid modernization.

The partisan proposal also includes a number of social and economic reforms such as providing child care for working families, investing in housing affordability, and funding for historically black colleges and universities.

Republicans and some moderate Democrats have criticized this proposal for including a number of expensive elements that are divisive. However, it’s worth noting that many of the most expensive and politically divisive aspects of the Democratic proposal are not directly aimed at reducing carbon emissions. The proposal allocates $726B to fund Democrats’ legislative priorities such as universal pre-K, tuition-free community colleges, and expansion of Pell grants for higher education (among others). It allocates $107B to the Judiciary Committee to address lawful permanent status for qualified immigrants.

Conversely, it might be possible to add some of the additional emissions-reducing aspects of the Democratic proposal to the bipartisan proposal without substantially increasing its cost or divisiveness. For instance, clean-energy tax credits and heat pump rebates expand consumer choice and are likely to be popular with the public. Nuclear power is relatively popular with Republicans, and has been central to large-scale electricity decarbonization in France and Sweden.

In fact, some of the provisions in the larger, partisan proposal, which are not included in the bipartisan proposal, have been successful in the last five years in states controlled by Republican legislatures. Examples include Georgia’s 2015 Solar Power Free Market Financing Act, South Carolina’s 2019 Energy Freedom Act, and Utah’s 2019 Community Renewable Energy Act.

Even clean electricity requirements, which we found to have passed disproportionately less in a bipartisan way in our recent state-level analysis, passed at the county or city level in all but 12 states (180 cities in the U.S. have policies that shoot for 100 percent clean electricity). 

Climate mitigation has also become a winning issue in conservative-leaning ideological settings in other Western developed countries. For instance, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government in the U.K. adopted a 78 percent emissions reduction target by 2035 and Canada’s federal Conservative party recently included carbon pricing in their public platform (and they are in a close race with Trudeau's Liberals in the current election polls). 

Besides being good policy, bipartisan collaboration on climate change could also be good politics for both parties. For the Republicans, it could show that they’re finally serious about this issue—something that could bring moderates back into the tent and energize some of the younger members of their base. In fact, our state-level bill analysis found that Democratic politicians tend to support emissions-reduction policies proposed by both parties, which suggests that Republicans may have an opportunity to significantly influence legislative priorities addressing climate change, but they must get serious about doing so.  

For Democrats, collaborating with Republicans on climate change could show that they actually believe their own rhetoric about climate being an emergency, and that they are willing to pragmatically get the job done, even if it means compromising on some of their ideological priorities on other issues. When someone needs life-saving surgery, they don’t care about their doctor’s opinions on the culture wars; they just want the job to get done.

Most importantly, ambitious cooperation on climate change would show the world—and ourselves—that America can still find the strength of character to be bold, optimistic, and aspirational, and that we can be counted on to get the big important things done. That might even generate the kind of national pride to build unity around.

A guest post by
PhD student in the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California Santa Barbara.
A guest post by
Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.