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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


September-October 2016

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Editorial - A New Politics for Climate Change

Riley Dunlap and his colleagues, writing in this issue, have brought up to date their long-running analysis of partisan differences in views on climate change in the United States.1 This refreshment reveals a strong current partisan divide, and suggests that the character of both Presidential and Congressional elections in November will likely chart the course of U.S. responses to the Paris Agreement.

What is revealing is the continuing growth, since 2000, of a partisan divide regarding the reality, causes, and threats of climate change in what might be called the “two Americas.” Highlighting this huge partisan split does not contradict the more nuanced efforts of the Yale–George Mason team to discern “Six Americas” regarding climate change, as they too find strong partisan differences in the U.S. public's views of climate change.2 Dunlap and colleagues point to the reinforcing effects of both social communication and opinion solidarity, as well as to the continuing strong differentiation between those with and without college degrees, as contributing to this growing partisan divide.

All of this resonates with the two major political talking points of the United States and Europe over the last month. This refers to the “Trump phenomenon,” and to the British vote to leave the European Union, the so-called “Brexit crisis.” Both are unprecedented political convulsions. Both have some resonance in the widening separation between those who believe that the political class is broadly connected to them and is in some way accountable to their demands, and those who feel they are losing out and who feel nobody seems to be either caring or listening to them.

Alienation, and fear for the worsening of the future happiness of offspring, drive a demand for short-term evidence of rapid and measurable improvement and immediate consumer gratification. The distant political and economic seismicities emanating from such demands are given little attention. Climate change is still an unknowably vague prospect for the alienated and disaffected, who worry about falling household income, competition for public services and jobs, and general insecurity. It is not surprising, then, that Trump supporters hold far more skeptical views about climate change than do Clinton supporters.3 Nor is it unusual that major figures in the Brexit campaign are also leading climate change skeptics.4

In the Brexit case, Britain will now disentangle itself from the European Union collective position over confirming the Paris Agreement. Of great interest will be the role of the U.K. Committee on Climate Change over the coming years. This committee has a statutory function to ensure that Britain meets a trajectory of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions in accord with international scientific agreements. So far, the committee has kept the United Kingdom broadly to its mitigation pathways. In post-Brexit Britain, with the prospect of recession and a possible splintering of Scotland to independence, the more likely reason for further GHG reductions will be economic decline and national disintegration. This is not a reliable political or social basis for meeting the 80 percent reduction target for 2050 to which the committee is committed.

The European Union (EU) with Britain in it was more amenable to the Paris Agreement, as the United Kingdom provided a bulwark of support. It is too early to forecast what will be the position of a Brexit EU. If the current trend to economic recession continues, then the willingness to take the tough economic choices over progressive mitigation may be severely blunted.

In the United States, the forthcoming tumultuous Presidential election may barely touch on climate change. Dunlap and his colleagues conclude that the outcome will materially affect the U.S. response to Paris. This may well depend on the composition of Congress and the Supreme Court, as much as on the persona and politics of the incoming President.

Of interest here is an emerging new politics for climate change transitions. The post-Brexit United Kingdom may shift toward a more localized and more egalitarian politics and democracy, in order to accommodate an alarming response to immigration and racism. In this transition there just could be more political and economic support for social movements and social enterprise that favor more local sustainable living. Dismantling the current discredited order is already in the sights of the putative next generation of political leaders both in the United Kingdom and in the European Union.

The new politics of climate change in these tumultuous political times may resonate more via the response to the politics of alienation and disaffection. In this fascinating scenario, the politics of partisanship and national independence may well play a vital part. Whatever the case, a new politics of climate change is on the horizon.


1. R. E. Dunlap and A. M. McCright, “A Widening Gap: Republican and Democratic Views on Climate Change,” Environment 50 (September/October 2008): 26–35; A. M. McCright and R. E. Dunlap, “The Politicization of Climate Change: Political Polarization in the American Public's Views of Global Warming,” Sociological Quarterly 52 (2011): 155–94.

2. A. Leiserowitz, E. Maibach, C. Roser-Renouf, G. Feinberg, and S. Rosenthal, Global Warming and the U.S. Presidential Election (New Haven, CT: Yale University and George Mason University, Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, spring 2016).

3. Ibid.

4. Buttonwood, “Where Brexit and Climate-Change Scepticism Converge,” The Economist, May 22, 2019, available at

—Tim O'Riordan

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