How Did Pollution Become so Political

How did the issue of climate change become so polarizing? Documented scientific evidence of decades of rising temperatures – with 12 of the hottest years on record occurring in the last 15 years, stronger and more intense storms, severe flooding and prolonged drought seem to be having little to no impact on American public opinion. The Pew Research Center, which has been tracking partisan opinion on climate change since 2006, has seen little difference in the partisan divide on the issue with 87% of Democrats versus 44% of Republicans agreeing there is solid evidence the earth’s temperature is warming. The split becomes even more pronounced when the question turns to the cause with three times as many Democrats than Republicans (59% - 19%) saying human activity is a significant driver of the shift in our climate. Perhaps most striking finding in the survey is the decidedly non-partisan decline in the number of Americans who view climate change as a very serious problem. Just six months after Superstorm Sandy, the survey showed a six point drop (39% - 33%) in those very concerned with the consequences of global warming.

So, what can climate activists do to close the gap? One course of action may be to shift the debate away from the environment toward issues where Democrats, Independents and Republicans have more common ground, like the economy. A recent study published in the journal Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences ( looked at views on energy efficiency through an ideological lens. The researchers found that talking up the environmental benefits of energy efficiency projects and products actually made conservatives less likely to engage in energy saving activities. This was especially true when highlighting the benefits of reducing carbon pollution.  

The study included a test that asked participants to choose between the incandescent light bulbs of yesteryear and the newer, more efficient and at times more expensive compact florescent bulbs (CFL). When the bulbs were presented to the consumers with just the statistics on energy use and no mention of climate impacts, a majority of both conservatives and liberals went with the CFL at an equal rate. When the label “Protect the Environment” was added to the CFL’s packaging the percentage of moderates and conservatives that chose the CFL dropped significantly, mirroring the ideological public opinion divide on climate change.

These findings highlight the need for environmentalists to focus on broadening their base when it comes to advocating for measures aimed at reducing climate pollution. When trying to influence policy-makers, leadoff with the economic benefits of energy efficiency and renewable power initiatives. Join forces with the small business, manufacturers, developers, trade organizations and consumer groups most likely to benefit from the job growth, profits and cost savings these programs have proven to produce. I am not saying we should ignore the very real environmental impacts of climate change. There are certainly a significant percentage of people that are very concerned about rising temperatures, increased storm intensity, flooding and poor air quality and it is important to keep them on the right side of the issue. If we are going to finally shift the views of the other 70% of the population the emphasis should be on the one issue we all seem to agree on, how is action on climate change going to affect our bottom-line?