An Elephant Never Forgets, Unless it’s Proven Science

Over the last ten years, US party politics have prevented climate change from being treated as the national security threat that it is and turned the discourse surrounding it into a political gridlock. Despite the monumental danger posed by climate change, the Republican Party has thrown its head in the sand and neglected the issue because of its religious opposition to the Democratic Party’s platform. Understanding how this happened and its effect on climate change action is key to preventing future policy failures.

By 2016, despite the long-standing scientific consensus, only 48 percent of adults in the United States believed climate change was caused by human activity, with it being no surprise which party skeptics tended to vote for1. Like healthcare, abortion and immigration, climate change had become a partisan issue in the US, largely opposed by the Republican Party2. But it wasn’t always this way.

In the late 2000s, when alarm over climate change was growing and media coverage of the issue increasing, many Republicans seemed to share the concern. John McCain3, Rudy Giuliani4 and George W. Bush5 all either supported action on climate change or at least admitted its human cause. In 2010, the Department of Defence classified climate change as a national security threat, saying it was already “[observable] in every region of the world, including the United States” and could be an “accelerant of instability or conflict”6. Threats to national security, such as war and foreign policy, are usually granted some level of bipartisanship, so activists, scientists and legislators from all sides of politics hoped climate change would be no different7.

One of the first tests of climate change bipartisanship came in 2009, with the Obama Administration’s “cap-and-trade” program. Essentially an emissions trading scheme, cap-and-trade was originally a Republican Party policy that had undergone several iterations. The first program was introduced in 1990 by George H. W. Bush, as an amendment to the Clean Air Act. It attempted to prevent acid rain by reducing the sulphur dioxide from power plants8. In 2003, another cap-and-trade program, titled the Climate Stewardship Act, was proposed by Republican John McCain in conjunction with Democrat Joseph Lieberman, this time directed at climate change9. However, it failed to gain enough votes to pass the senate, and despite repeated attempts in 2005 and 2007, the McCain-Lieberman program never became a reality.

In 2009, shortly after assuming office, the Obama administration tried to establish its own cap-and-trade program but was met with opposition from a large number of Republicans, who claimed its cost would be too high10. A bill to establish the program was approved by the House of Representatives but never voted on in the Senate. The Democrats prioritized other legislation, after running the numbers and finding they didn’t have enough votes to pass it.

The failure of the cap-and-trade legislation was a turning point in the climate change debate. The Republican Party saw a political opportunity and began to shift its stance on climate change, latching onto right-wing anti-Obama sentiment. Where the debate had previously been about the logistics of climate change policy, the Republican Party instead solidified its opposition to the Democrats. The consensus on climate change eroded into partisan denial11.

After the failure to introduce a cap-and-trade program, things became worse for climate change policy. In October of 2009, a poll from the Pew Research Center showed a decline in the number of Americans who believed there was solid evidence of global temperature rise, down from 47 percent of the population the previous year to 36 percent12. This statistic was partially indicative of a change in the Republican base. In response to the Obama Administration and its policies, including its proposed cap-and-trade program, the right-wing and climate skeptic activist movement known as the “Tea Party” had grown in popularity, and was successful in gaining seats when the Republicans took control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections13. By 2012, climate skepticism was so entrenched in the party that its candidate for the general election, Mitt Romney, was a climate skeptic14.

The political polarization of climate change gave malignant interests a side to root for. Corporations with profits threatened by climate change regulation recognized a moment of uncertainty and exploited it, spreading disinformation and fueling doubt, using huge amounts of money to muddy the debate around climate change. Between 1998 and 2014, the oil and gas multinational ExxonMobil gave over $30 million to climate denier groups and think tanks15 and, between 2007 and 2014, donated $1.87 million to climate change-denying Republicans in Congress16.

Such lobbying, or bribery, continued to occur throughout the 2010s, while the number of Republican climate skeptics in Congress grew from 169 in 2015 to at least 180 by 201617. The Republicans fortified their position, with a leadership increasingly dominated by lawmakers representing constituents threatened by climate change regulation, such as workers in the coal and oil industries18. By the 2016 US election, all of the most prominent Republican presidential candidates were climate change skeptics of some variation, including Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Donald Trump19. The party had been well and truly overtaken by an anti-climate change agenda.

This partisanship sets a dangerous precedent for the international community. The US is not just holding itself in the past, but the rest of the world too. As one of the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitters, the US is needed to help lead any global initiative20. France and Germany have tried to champion climate change reform by themselves as well as through the European Union, but they are not nearly as influential as the US and require its support and leadership.

And while efforts to combat climate change stall, something even worse than inaction could occur: other countries might follow the United States’ partisan path. Conservative parties around the world argue about climate change action, and while many of them still only disagree with progressive parties on how to implement regulatory policy, there are some that seem keen to follow the Republicans’ lead and deny climate change science itself21.

Australia, for example, implemented the first ever tax on carbon emissions, only for its conservative party to axe it after winning government22. Taking a leaf out of the Republican Party’s book, the conservative Liberal Party of Australia won government after running an election campaign in which their strict partisan opposition to the progressive Labor Party’s policies meant they ended up on the wrong side of climate science. This entrenched climate skepticism into conservative politics in Australia. Since the 2013 election, the Australian Government has found it impossible to pass climate change policy, with an empowered far right climate change skeptic faction holding conservative leaders hostage over the debate.23,24

Meanwhile, China sits on the sidelines. As a rising global power and the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter, China is hesitant to take the first step in reducing emissions25. It has recently introduced some measures to mitigate climate change effects, mostly aimed at substituting coal consumption for natural gas and electricity instead26, but despite this, and the fact that it emits less carbon dioxide per capita than developed countries, China’s emissions are increasing, as it continues to develop at an extraordinary rate27.

Unlike the US and Australia, China as a one-party state has no problems with partisan dogma, but it is concerned with maintaining its footing in the international order. China will not combat climate change if it jeopardises its status as a global power. It needs other world leaders, namely the US, to assure it that reducing emissions is not a fool’s folly.

In the US, one of the greatest existential threats to humanity has been reduced to a partisan game. The Republican Party espouses pseudo-science, seduced by corporate bribery and the stench of political opportunity. They camouflage a disregard for expert opinion, and by extent a disregard for the health of the human race, against fiscal and social policies like taxes and healthcare, betting on the fact that even the most intelligent of their voters won’t swap ship because of one issue. In doing so, they’ve shown how alluring polarization for the sake of polarization can be, and how effective powerful corporations are at manipulating political discourse. The evolution of the climate change “debate” shows a vulnerability in democracy, and experts, politicians, and voters will have to keep it in mind for both future climate change policies, as well as other political issues.

  1. Cary Funk & Brian Kennedy, “Public views on climate change and climate scientists,” Pew Research Center, published October 4, 2016,
  2. Nadja Popovich & Livia Albeck-Ripka, “How Republicans think about climate change – in maps,” New York Times, published December 14, 2017,
  3. Marianne Lavelle, “John McCain’s climate change legacy,” Inside Climate News, published August 26, 2018,
  4. Joseph Romm, “Rudy Giuliani’s stance on climate and energy,” Grist, published October 19, 2007,
  5. George W Bush, “President Bush discusses global climate change,” The White House, published June 11, 2001,
  6. “Quadrennial Defense Review,” Department of Defense, published February 2010,
  7. John Kerry & Lindsey Graham, “Yes we can (pass climate change legislation),” New York Times, published October 10, 2009,
  8. Andrew Restuccia, “Obama: cap-and-trade was a Republican idea,” The Hill, published April 3, 2012,
  9. Lavelle, “John McCain’s climate change legacy.”
  10. Carl Hulse & David M. Herszenhorn, “Democrats call off climate bill effort,” New York Times, published July 22, 2010,
  11. Timothy Cama, “Poll: Partisanship in global warming opinions growing,” The Hill, published March 28, 2018,
  12. “Fewer Americans See Solid Evidence of Global Warming,” Pew Research Center, published October 22, 2009,
  13. Katie Connolly, “What exactly is the Tea Party,” BBC, published September 16, 2010,
  14. Sarah Childress, “Timeline: the politics of climate change,” PBS, published October 23, 2012,
  15. “ExxonMobil Foundation & Corporate giving to climate change denier & obstructionist organizations,” Greenpeace & the Union of Concerned Scientists, published 2014,
  16. Suzanne Goldenberg, “Exxonmobil gave millions to climate-denying lawmakers despite pledge,” The Guardian, published July 15, 2015,
  17. Molly O’Toole & Keith Johnson, “Climate change is undeniable. So why is the GOP still denying it?” Foreign Policy, published March 11, 2016,
  18. Coral Davenport & Eric Lipton, “How GOP leaders came to view climate change as fake science,” New York Times, published June 3, 2017,
  19. Devin Henry, “Climate change: Where the GOP field stands,” The Hill, published January 23, 2016,
  20. Andriy Blokhin, “The 5 countries that produce the most carbon dioxide,” Investopedia, published September 29, 2015,
  21. Sondre Båtstrand, “More than markets: A comparative study of nine conservative parties on climate change,” Politics & Policy 43, 4 (2015): 538-561,
  22. Julia Baird, “A carbon tax’s ignoble end,” New York Times, published July 24, 2014,
  23. Robinson Meyer, “It’s not just America: Climate policies are stumbling worldwide,” The Atlantic, published November 27, 2018,
  24. Judith Brett, “The Morrison government’s biggest economic problem? Climate change denial,” The Conversation, published October 18, 2018,
  25. Blokhin, “The 5 countries that produce the most carbon dioxide.”
  26. Qi Ye & Jiaqi Lu, “China’s coal consumption has peaked,” Bookings, published January 22, 2018,
  27. Noah Smith, “China is the climate-change battleground,” Bloomberg, published October 14, 2018,

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