Dereliction of Duty: The Politicization of Climate Change in the US and the UK
PK Khup Hangzo, Associate Fellow, VIF
Introduction

Developed countries such as the US, Canada, Japan and those in Western Europe accounted for just 12% of the global population today but are responsible for 50% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions over the past 170 years.[1] Over that time, the Earth has warmed by roughly 1.1°C above pre-industrial level, fuelling stronger and deadlier heat waves, floods, droughts and wildfires. The impact of these extreme weather events are disproportionately felt by poorer countries that contributed the least to climate change. In light of this, developed countries are expected to take the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and even compensate poorer countries for the damages caused. These expectations however may not be realized at least in the short- to medium-term. Climate change has already been highly politicized in key developed countries like the US and the UK. As a result, it has fallen victim to the increasingly vicious “culture wars” that has afflicted both countries. That could potentially undermine not only their efforts to combat climate change, but global efforts too.

Ideological and Political Divide over Climate Change

Developed countries like the US and the UK have historical responsibilities for climate change. Besides being among the world’s top cumulative historical emitters of greenhouse gases, they continue to have very high per-capita emissions. To be sure, both countries have renewed their commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and have led the world in recent global climate negotiations. For example, during the UN Climate Change Conference that was held in Glasgow, the UK in 2021, the US promised to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Meanwhile, the UK has already passed a legislation that committed the country to a legally binding target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The passage of that legislation has not met any objection in the UK parliament and was seen as a rare display of parliamentary unity.

Despite these measures, there remained significant numbers of climate skeptics among American and British politicians who viewed climate change not as scientific fact but as one of several issues that define their personal ideological position. A 2015 study by Sondre Båtstrand of the University of Bergen in Norway found that among conservative parties in developed countries, the Republican Party “stands alone in its rejection of the need to tackle climate change.”[2] Politicians belonging to the Republican Party have a long track record of climate denial as well as of accepting large donations from the fossil fuel industry. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress, more than 25% of elected American officials in the 117th Congress (sitting in 2021) refuse to acknowledge the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change.[3] That amounted to 139 officials including 109 representatives and 30 senators. These “climate deniers” make up 52% of House Republicans and 60% of Senate Republicans and they had reportedly accepted more than USD 61 million in lifetime direct contributions from the oil, gas, and coal industries. That amounted to an average of USD 442, 293 per elected official of Congress that denies climate change. That helped explained their reluctance to accept climate change. The most prominent Republicans to question climate change however was former President Donald Trump who tweeted in November 2012 before he become President that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”[4] In other words, he believed that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. Although Trump had changed his stance upon becoming President, he continued to cast doubt on whether humans were responsible for the Earth’s rising temperatures. He noted during an interview that aired on 14 October 2018 that he no longer believes climate change is a hoax. Instead, he said that the climate could “change back again” and that scientists have “a very big political agenda.”[5] He subsequently withdrew the US from the Paris climate agreement, an international pact to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and his administration systematically rolled back a number of America’s climate efforts.

With climate skeptics at the helm of US politics, and with positions on climate change having split down party lines, a strong undercurrent of climate denialism has also permeated among the American public. A survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication that was published in September 2021 found that 60% of registered US voters think global warming should be a high or very high priority for the US president and Congress.[6] That included large majorities of liberal Democrats (94%) and moderate/conservative Democrats (80%), 53% of Independents, and 45% of liberal/moderate Republicans. At the other end of the spectrum, relatively few conservative Republicans (17%) think that global warming should be a high or very high priority for the US president and Congress. Meanwhile, 69% of registered voters say developing clean energy sources should be a high or very high priority for the president and Congress. That included nearly all liberal Democrats (98%), a large majority of moderate/conservative Democrats (84%), and most Independents (64%), a majority of liberal/moderate Republicans (56%), and one in three conservative Republicans (33%).

There is also a growing ideological and partisan polarization over climate change in the UK. Opponents of the country’s net zero plan within the ruling Conservative Party has formed the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG). The group is chaired by Craig Mackinlay, Conservative Party Member of Parliament (MP) for South Thanet. In all, the group included at least 19 Conservative MPs, including prominent figures such as Steve Baker, former Brexit minister and MP for Wycombe; Esther McVey, former Work and Pensions Secretary and MP for Tatton; and Robert Halfon, former skills minister and MP for Harlow. A number of the group’s members have links to the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a think tank and an educational charity that focuses on climate and energy policy. Critics however, considered it to be the UK’s most high-profile climate science denial think tank. GWPF was established on 22 November 2009 by Nigel Lawson, former Conservative Party Chancellor, with the purpose of combating “extremely damaging and harmful policies” designed to mitigate climate change.[7] Mr. Lawson is widely considered to be the UK’s leading climate change skeptic. He has previously claimed that climate change is not a threat as it is happening “very gently,” and that is something “we can perfectly well live with.”[8] The NZGS broke cover in a letter to the Sunday Telegraph which was published on 1 January 2022. In it, members of the group urged the British government to suspend environmental levies which fund renewable energy schemes, suspend the moratorium on fracking, and drill for more fossil fuels in the North Sea to lower energy bills.[9] The NZGS claimed that they are not disputing the science behind climate change but are merely concerned about the cost to households of net zero which they argued is too bold and would impoverish working people if implemented.[10] The group however has been accused of relying on “inaccurate and misleading claims,” particularly about the investments required to achieve the statutory target of net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050, to promote their cause.[11]

Climate Change as a Victim of “Culture Wars”

The growing political and ideological divide in the US and the UK has led to climate change becoming a victim to the increasingly vicious “culture wars” that have afflicted both countries. The term “culture wars” was popularized by the American sociologist James Davison Hunterin his seminal 1991 book titled Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. Mr. Hunter defined “culture wars” as
“…a political battle over certain kinds of cultural issues, like abortion, sexuality, family values, church-state issues, and so on.” [12]

In other words, culture wars refer to the “ferocious politicization of everything.”[13] According to Professor Andrew J. Hoffman of the University of Michigan, climate change has become enmeshed in America’s culture wars. He observed that acceptance by the Republicans of the scientific consensus of climate change is now seen as “an alignment with liberal views consistent with other “cultural” issues that divide the country (abortion, gun control, health care, and evolution).”[14] In such a highly polarized environment, cooperation and compromise to tackle the issue is virtually impossible to achieve as that would look like capitulation or even treasonous collusion with the “enemy.” That did not bode well for America’s efforts to combat climate change as it could hamper President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act, the USD 1.75 trillion social policy and climate package. The climate portion of this act included USD 555 billion aimed at facilitating America’s transition towards clean energy sources and was dubbed the “largest effort to combat climate change in American history.”[15] If implemented, the act could potentially enable the US to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 and help achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Although the bill was passed by the House of Representatives on 19 November 2021, it has stalled in the Senate with no clear timeline for its passage. In light of this, some Democrats have expressed their willingness to forge ahead with a stand-alone climate bill. Even that will likely encounter stiff Republican opposition in the US Senate. Early this year, The New York Times asked each of the 50 Senate Republicans if they would support just the climate provisions in the Build Back Better Act if they were presented in a stand-alone bill. None of them said they would, and some of them characterized the bill as a “far-left agenda” and “Democrat priorities.”[16]

There are also tentative signs that the UK’s net zero emissions plan has become another front in the escalating ideological struggle between “the people” and “the elite.” Opponents of the plan such as the NZSG have framed the debate through the lens of cultural division and class privilege. They contended that it was “dreamed up by out-of-touch elites, and would impoverish working people.”[17] Vocal members of the group such as Craig Mackinlay described it as a “social calamity” and insisted that the British public will rebel against it.[18] Another key member of the group Steve Baker also declared that the net zero consensus will not survive contact with the British public and predicted “an enormous political explosion” over it. They are joined by former UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage who claimed that “the political class in Westminster” has taken the UK down a “ruinous path” by committing to the net zero targets without any public debate being held.[19] He has launched a campaign in March this year that called for a referendum on net zero. Thus, NZSG and other like-minded politicians viewed themselves as defenders of the values and livelihoods of ordinary people and even their freedoms. Their eventual aim is to mobilise anti-elite sentiments among the British public and to undermine support for what they see as unaffordable climate action.

Conclusion

The US and the UK are developed countries with disproportionate global influence in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and international climate policy. As such, their climate actions mattered. While they have increased their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, their efforts have fallen victim to the widening ideological and political divide over climate change. Thus, an existential crisis facing all of humanity has been reduced to yet another frivolous culture war dispute similar to that of abortion, gun control, health care, evolution, immigration, face masks, etc in both countries. If, as a result of the politicization of climate change, the US and the UK failed to deliver on their climate commitments, it will have devastating consequences for global efforts to combat climate change. It will lead to countries like China, and even India, backsliding on their commitments as well. As a result, the global goal of limiting global warming to a tolerable level of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of 2100 will remain out of reach.

Endnotes :

[1]Popovich, Nadja and Brad Plumer “Who Has The Most Historical Responsibility for Climate Change.” The New York Times. November 12, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/11/12/climate/cop26-emissions-compensation.html
[2]Båtstrand,Sondre. “More than Markets: A Comparative Study of Nine Conservative Parties on Climate Change.” Politics & Policy. Volume 43, No. 4 (2015): 538-561. https://cmase.uark.edu/sciencecafe/morethanmarkets.pdf
[3] “Climate Deniers in the 117th Congress.” Center for American Progress (CAP). March 30, 2021. https://www.americanprogress.org/article/climate-deniers-117th-congress/
[4]Jacobson, Louis. “Yes, Donald Trump did call climate change a Chinese hoax.” Politifact. June 3, 2016. https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2016/jun/03/hillary-clinton/yes-donald-trump-did-call-climate-change-chinese-h/
[5]Stahl, Lesley. “President Trump on Christine Blasey Ford, his relationships with Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un and more.” CBS News. October 15, 2018. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/donald-trump-full-interview-60-minutes-transcript-lesley-stahl-2018-10-14/
[6]Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Rosenthal, S., Kotcher, J., Carman, J., Neyens, L., Goldberg, M., Lacroix, K., & Marlon, J. 2021. “Politics & Global Warming, September 2021.” Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/politics-global-warming-september-2021b.pdf
[7] “Ed Miliband clashes with Lord Lawson on global warming.” BBC News. December 6, 2009. https://web.archive.org/web/20150817165824/http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/8398103.stm
[8]Horton, Helena. “Staff from climate sceptic group recruited by Tory MP behind net zero attacks.” The Guardian. February 17, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/feb/17/staff-from-climate-sceptic-group-recruited-by-tory-mp-behind-net-zero-attacks
[9]“Gas prices: MPs and peer urge PM to act on energy bills.” BBC News. January 2, 2022. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-59849731
[10]Taylor, Matthew and Helena Horton. “Tories fighting net zero plans are dragging climate into new culture war, experts say.” The Guardian. February 8, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/feb/08/tories-fighting-net-zero-plans-are-dragging-climate-into-new-culture-war-experts-say
[11]Ward, Bob. “Misinformation and propaganda campaign on net zero.” Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.London School of Economics and Political Science. September 10, 2021. https://www.lse.ac.uk/granthaminstitute/news/misinformation-and-propaganda-campaign-on-net-zero/
[12]Stanton, Zack. “How the ‘Culture War’ Could Break Democracy.” Politico. May 20, 2021. https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/05/20/culture-war-politics-2021-democracy-analysis-489900
[13]Grunwald, Michael. “How everything became the culture war.” Politico. November 3, 2018. https://www.politico.eu/article/democrats-republicans-us-immigration-global-warming-education-how-everything-became-the-culture-war/
[14]Hoffman, A. 2012. “Climate science as culture war.” Stanford Social Innovation Review. 10(4): 30-37. https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/136210/1361_Hoffman.pdf
[15] “President Biden Announces the Build Back Better Framework.” The White House. October 28, 2021. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/10/28/president-biden-announces-the-build-back-better-framework/
[16]Davenport, Coral and Lisa Friedman. “Build back better’ Hit Wall, But Climate Action Could Move Forward.” The New York Times. January 20, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/20/climate/build-back-better-climate-change.html
[17]Taylor, Matthew and Helena Horton. “Tories fighting net zero plans are dragging climate into new culture war, experts say.” The Guardian. February 8, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/feb/08/tories-fighting-net-zero-plans-are-dragging-climate-into-new-culture-war-experts-say
[18]Shenker, Jack. “Meet the ‘inactivists’, tangling up the climate crisis in culture wars.” The Guardian. November 11, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/11/inactivists-tangling-up-the-climate-crisis-in-culture-wars-manston-airport-kent
[19]Owen, Glen. “Nigel Farage's new drive for vote to kill off Boris's 'ruinous' green agenda: He got us out of the EU… Now the former UKIP chief demands a referendum on Net Zero.” Daily Mail. March 5, 2022. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10581529/Nigel-Farage-campaign-Net-Zero-policy-referendum.html

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