Congress’ Polarization and Failure on Climate Change

The U.S. Congress has been extremely ineffective at producing legislative solutions to anthropogenic climate change throughout the issue’s political history.

There are a plethora of reasons for why this is the case, a few of which I covered here, here, and here on this blog. This article, though, describes (1) how Congress has stood on the issue over time (as I researched in my B.A. thesis), (2) its major attempt at climate change legislation in 2009–’10, and (3) the current political state of climate change in Congress.

Discussion and polarization

Since 1995, Congress has increasingly discussed the issue of climate change. Members of the Senate and House made significantly more statements about the issue beginning in 2005–’06, and discussion peaked in 2009–’10 and has since declined a bit (seen by the graphs below; source: original B.A. thesis research).

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However, what’s most striking is the change in stances by both parties on climate change. Over time, Democrats were generally more supportive than Republicans of climate science and humans’ impact on global warming, but beginning in 2009–’10, the two parties began severely polarizing. While Democrats solidified their positions supporting climate science’s findings that human activities were at least partially warming the planet (seen on the graph below as “Agreement” and “Acknowledgment”), Republicans began proclaiming far more skepticism and denial on the issue.

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An example of a stereotypically skeptical Republican statement is, “The science behind global temperature changes is not settled,” (Rep. Michael Burgess, R–TX, said in 2011–’12). An example of a statement categorized as “Denial” is, “Global warming is a total fraud,” (Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R–CA, said in 2013–’14).

Simple addition also tells us that the presence of climate change denial (seen on the following graph as “Skepticism” or “Denial”, the green line) increased in 2009–’10 and is ever-present today.
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(This original research surveyed all statements made by members of the four Congressional subcommittees that dealt with climate change from 1995–2014. That encompassed between 71 and 102 legislators in any given two-year period, not the entirety of Congress.)

The 2009–2010 cap-and-trade attempt

Right around the time when Republicans and Democrats really began polarizing on the issue, the only Congressional attempt at climate change legislation, the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, was going through Congress (the presence and failure of which could have been a cause or effect of polarization—likely some of both).

Henry Waxman (D–CA) and Ed Markey (D–MA) pushed the legislation—which would have created an economy-wide cap on greenhouse gas emissions and a way for polluters to trade emissions credits—through the House, which passed the bill by a vote of 219–212 in June 2009. 8 Republicans crossed party lines to vote for the bill (siding with the majority of Democrats), while 44 Democrats voted against it.

When the Senate’s turn came to pass the bill (or a revised form of it), however, all political will for legislative climate change action fell apart. John Kerry (D–MA), Joe Lieberman (I–CT), and Lindsey Graham (R–SC) worked for over a year to put together the right mixture of support to reach the 60 Senate votes necessary to avoid a filibuster. This meant targeting the support of Democrats on the fence with fossil fuel or utility interests in their states, or moderate Republicans with nuclear or drilling interests, two potential concessions to be made to win support for the ultimate goal, a cap on emissions.

In the end, the three senators—without too much help from the White House—couldn’t find the right combination of support from interest groups or fellow senators to pass the bill, and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–NV) never called for the bill’s vote in the Senate.

Climate change in Congress today

Many look back on 2009–2010 (the exact months that the Affordable Care Act successfully passed through both the House and Senate) as the only hope for climate change legislation in Congress. Since then, as the earlier graphs show, Democrats and Republicans have vehemently disagreed on climate change. And with Republicans controlling the House (since the 2010 election) and Senate (since 2014), there haven’t been any serious legislative attempts since then.

Research by the Center for American Progress shows that members of this 114th Congress (2015–2017) are vastly denying the scientific reality of human-driven climate change (38 senators and 144 representatives), with roughly 63% of Americans represented by a senator or congressperson who falls into this camp (all Republicans).

Compare that with the Senate’s 50–49 vote in January 2015 against a provision that proclaimed, “human activity significantly contributes to climate change,” with five Republicans voting with Democrats for the provision. Then in November 2015, the Senate voted 52–46 to block the EPA’s Clean Power Plan (which has been held up in the courts), the only somewhat serious means available to mitigate climate change in the United States (three Democrats and three Republicans each voted with the other side). And recently, in June 2016, the House voted 237–163 that a tax on carbon dioxide emissions is “not in the best interest of the United States,” with six Democrats agreeing with Republicans (and no Republicans dissenting).

For reference, in 2016 roughly 65% of the American public believe climate change is predominantly caused by human activities.
Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 5.31.18 PM

All of this shows that Congress is (a) extremely polarized on the issue and (b) nowhere close to taking legislative action to mitigate climate change, especially when a large chunk of the legislature doesn’t agree there’s a significant problem to solve.

How has this happened?

There are a handful of causes for this political dysfunction—why Congress has polarized, why legislators can’t even agree with the scientific community, and why Congress can’t get close to passing mitigation legislation (since 2009–2010).  

(1) The public hasn’t always shown significant agreement with (or knowledge of) the scientific research, or cared about the issue compared to others.

(2) The climate change denial campaign, primarily funded by the fossil fuel industry, spread doubt about the issue in the public and in politics (including through funding think tanks).

(3) The 2008 financial crisis made the issue less politically palatable, as mitigation policies likely would’ve increased energy prices, at least in the short term.

(4) The election of President Obama certainly contributed to polarization, or at least Republican dissent from his priorities.

(5) The influence of industry lobbying—exhibited by the failure of cap-and-trade legislation by Senators Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham in 2009–’10—and campaign money by interest groups (notably the fossil fuel industry) exists, and was likely exacerbated by the January 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United.

(Fundamentally, Congress isn’t built to solve global, long-term collective action problems that involve absorbing financial costs.)

Overall, Congress has egregiously failed to pass legislation (or even try more than once) to translate science into policy, which is a massive problem, especially when our future selves will pay the price.

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