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Political Polarization Paralyzes Climate Action

March 12, 2019

During assembly on Tuesday, March 12, Caleb Hughes '19 presented his findings from an independent study researching how public policy affects efforts to address climate change. His prepared remarks, along with some of his slides, follow:

This talk was originally aimed to be about climate change and potential actions to combat it. But you can never get very far in a climate action discussion without encountering the elephant in the room that is politics. The politics of climate action has two sides, a global discussion on transitioning to sustainable economic systems and combating the influence of Big Oil, and a more embarrassing stagnant gridlock in the U.S. on gathering any political will to acknowledge and maybe act on climate change. Today I’ll be focusing on the political polarization in the U.S. that has hindered climate action.

I’m low on time, so I can’t show this entire video, but here are a few clips that will get you an idea of why politics has to be addressed before we can have a meaningful discussion on sustainable policies. You’ll see numerous officials, some of which change their stance on climate change, likely due to what John McCain will attribute to special interests.

Now at face value, anyone who’s remotely educated in climate science would look at the Republicans’ view on climate change as ridiculous. But this ignores the nuance of the situation, and in this situation harms the left’s thinking as well. The assumption from the left is that the right is either uninformed or must be one of the few directly invested in fossil fuels as to therefore not take a stance against it. While a lot of Republican politicians as well as some established Democratic officials’ campaigns and power rely on big oil, and special interests groups against climate action, there is a huge, less talked-about reason for Republicans’ polarization.

Naomi Klein, a prominent author, covers this best in her very first chapter titled “The right is right” of her must-read book This Changes Everything CAPITALISM VS THE CLIMATE. To grossly oversimplify, in the chapter she reveals this: What right-leaning citizens vaguely understand and what Republican special interests definitively understand, is that to act on the climate now will likely involve a large expansion of government and implementation of socialist and redistributionist policies that far-left Democrats already want. If action was taken back in the '70s, 40 years ago, then gradual shifts maybe could’ve been made that would’ve appeared less radical with respect to Republicans wanting smaller government. But that didn’t happen.

Democrats, on the other hand, only happened to be on the right side of this polarization. I’m sure there are Democrats who don’t understand how global warming works but are in full support of climate action just because it has become a part of the Democratic identity. The same is true for some Republican climate change denialists.

And in liberal communities it gives a moral high ground to say, “Hey, I care about the planet.” When in reality that is a value that shouldn’t belong to a party, as we’re all “stewards of the environment” as former President Richard Nixon, founder of the Environmental Protection Agency, said.

It’s in these generalizations of identity and accepting beliefs solely because of your group that lies the real danger. Partisanship in this way gets its strength from tribalism. It roots us further into a perceived cultural divide in values. There is a laundry list of issues other than climate change that we have trouble solving due to political polarization, such as gun control, immigration, abortion, etc. A large swath of dissatisfaction with government and a contributor to its inefficiency is of course also due to polarization.

The real vehicle of polarization comes from an individual and then a group level. The brain’s interest on an individual level sabotages our group cohesiveness through two primary ways: confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. Confirmation bias is ignoring info that is contrary to what you believe and solidifying beliefs you already have, upon new evidence.

Cognitive dissonance is the way the brain can maintain a simple and unified understanding of the world. Just as emotions can be more unpleasant than actual physical pain, cognitive dissonance's role is to use that bad feeling to preserve a unified understanding. While there’s much debate on the evolutionary advantage of cognitive dissonance, it probably helped in making sure our big brains didn’t become too philosophical and curious prematurely, so that we don’t ponder things like “is water wet?” while living in a world in which not getting eaten by a lion was the primary concern.

The brain functions in the same way it did when we were running around the savannah hundred thousands of years ago, which ends up harming us in modern societies, as these individual interests become magnified when we assign ourselves to groups.

After all, the best way of maintaining a unified view is to simply surround yourself with people who won’t challenge your views. And assigning ourselves to groups is a human specialty.

When it comes to the two national parties of our country, the consequences are magnified. In recent years, they’ve both solidified their bases disregarding facts and reality. While it’s each party’s job to essentially rally their base, it’s not their job to present false realities to their constituents just to get re-elected. We forget that a two-party system theoretically really should diverge into two very polarized sides.

And indeed it does. What you see here is a visual of representatives partisan voting patterns. Notice how the red circle condenses overtime more effectively than the blue circle. I’ll get to that in a second.

Our very founding fathers warned us about having a two-party system. John Adams said, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader. . . . This is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil.”

The reason the Democrats are often criticized for having a dilute or confusing message is because it really is too diverse for one party to represent. The Republican party has less diversity within it, and has thus been able to consistently deliver a more unified message to its constituents. But it could also benefit from a split into more parties, as the strict Constitutionalists and established conservatives often disagree with, and are sometimes embarrassed by, the current populous and far-right administration now.

But since our system is based upon having two parties, we end up with people who care about politics on the extremes but that engagement drops off with moderates.


Now, there used to be checks to this rabid partisanship that are no longer in place. The media was one of these checks.

Technology (from broadcasting to today) has diversified our news sources exponentially, from a few massive mainstream sources (with common understood narratives and facts) to a myriad of sources with more takes than we could ever consume. In 1977, 90% of people got their information from three news networks. Today, we get our news from [social media].

This is a helpful graph you can find on The left side is more democratic news sources and right is republican. The top is fact-reporting and the bottom includes fabricated info and propaganda. I can’t really give this graph the time it deserves, so try and pull it up on your own.

Yet the new diversity of news sources isn't a problem in and of itself. It's a problem because we have limited attention spans, meaning we can't absorb, or vary, our news sources for this diversity to be beneficial. Furthermore, we don’t want to vary it in the first place. Our brains don't like hearing things that don't match our own worldview, so why would we go out of our way to see from another perspective when there are an unlimited amount of sources that enrich our own worldview available, all the time?

So while technology has helped us usher in an explosion of media that has helped diversify and enrich culture, it has also served as the perfect storm for our Democracy. Game of Thrones, with all of its violence and sex, isn’t a show that’s possible to fund and air on mainstream TV in 1977. It is an example of the many niche entertainment media that is only possible with current technology. But when that same principle applies to news sources finding their niche audiences, we end up becoming isolated in our own echo chambers, making us ignorant of those unlike ourselves and increasing polarization even more so.

[Caleb showed excerpts from an HBO special, 15 Departing Congress Members Tell The Newbies What To Expect.]

Persuade and debate — don't argue to win, or repeat rhetoric and talk amongst your side about how wrong the other side is. That’s unproductive and ends up solidifying your own views that might be false.

Be drawn to, not repelled by debates from the other side. The best way to achieve this is to surround yourself with non-like minded people and balance your news consumption and research. When researching, google both views that affirm and negate your preconceived idea. As hard as it sounds never feel too comfortable with any of your own core views. It’ll stop you from re-analyzing it in the moment.

Check your biases by knowing what you're consuming at all times. Proximity is the key. We are concerned with the things and people around us. As academics, we’re concerned with good grades and pursuing truths. If you're an athlete, you're concerned with always performing at a higher level. If you're surrounded by people who listen to bad music then you're probably anxious about when Soulja Boy’s next album's dropping.

Your brain is already wired to take care of what’s in front of you — it’s your responsibility to be aware of what’s absent. To think and explore the struggles of the other. To be concerned with the single mother working multiple jobs to feed her kids — or even concerned with the Wall Street investor whose stock just crashed.

The success of the '60s civil rights era was the ability to show White America front and center the struggles of Black America under Jim Crow, and allow them to humanize the other.
We're all human and have limitations. But as well-educated people, we are especially responsible for being able to handle this type of "intellectual vertigo," as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, and handle the discomfort of changing our views.

Democracy —  however flawed — is still the exception to history and human governance. The rule, for 99% of our history, has been life under unjustified autocrats, kings, royalty and tribal chiefs. Understanding polarization and combating your biases is how you can improve as a person morally, and help to preserve this fragile exception in human history that is the social contract of a large, diverse, and beautiful nation that is the United States.