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Partisan Polarization Spikes Over Climate Change, Report Finds

A new report confirms that clashing ideas about climate change are contributing to partisan polarization. (Wildpixel/iStockphoto)
A new report confirms that clashing ideas about climate change are contributing to partisan polarization. (Wildpixel/iStockphoto)
September 12, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY – Republicans and Democrats have never been farther apart on climate change, according to a new Oklahoma State University study.

Both parties were essentially pro-environment in 1970, the study found. But today, 9 out of 10 Democrats, and only 3 in 10 Republicans, believe global warming is real and caused by human activity.

Riley Dunlap, the report's lead author, says the growing gap has widespread implications.

"Polarization, when it reaches this extreme, leads to situations where we can't pass a national budget to repair our roads and bridges,” he points out. “That's pretty disastrous, you know. We're getting into a dangerous situation with our infrastructure."

Dunlap notes businesses fearful of regulations and a potential shift in an economic system built on fossil fuels have been a driving force behind climate change denial campaigns.

The study's findings suggest climate has joined abortion, guns, taxes and other hot-button issues as a litmus test for GOP candidates.

Dunlap says momentum created by Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" and Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign created a backlash.

The study notes the Tea Party funded by the Koch brothers helped fuel a spike in climate skepticism – and along with efforts by fossil fuel corporations, business allies, conservative think tanks and media outlets – have had a big impact on public opinion.

"And there was real fear – in quarters who don't want to deal with climate change, that don't want regulations to reduce carbon emissions – that something would be done, you know, that policies would be enacted," he states.

Dunlap adds 2015 saw a noticeable rise in the number of Republicans who agree climate change is already happening, an assessment shared by the global scientific community, but the research still shows more polarization, not less.

The study also found personal experience with extreme weather events and rising temperatures is more likely to change minds than persuasion efforts, which it says frequently backfire.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - UT