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How climate change became a partisan issue

Most Americans are finally ready to take climate change seriously. According to a recently published report from Pew Research Center, 64 percent of Americans now believe that protecting the environment and combating climate change should be a top priority. It's the first time in two decades of Pew's polling that the issue has broached majority support during a presidential election year — suggesting that climate change is no longer some niche issue or afterthought but rather front and center on the minds of voters. Well, most voters, that is.

While the majority of Americans have come to see climate change for the existential threat that it is, Republican voters lag behind. Fewer than two in five (39 percent) consider environmental protection to be something they care about and just 21 percent consider it to be a top priority. By comparison, 78 percent of Democrats view climate change as a top priority heading into this election cycle. According to Pew's research, the environment has seen a 21 point increase in support among Americans over the last eight years — with 17 percent of that increase coming over the course of the last four years, much of which was dominated by the Trump administration's active attempts to undermined environmental protection and ignore climate change. Yet Republicans are largely unmoved. As political issues, climate change and environmental protections have the largest gap between the number of Republicans and Democrats who consider the topics to be top priorities.

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While this divide between Republican and Democratic voters may seem long-standing and impossible to bridge, climate change did not used to be a controversial concept. Republican president Richard Nixon formed the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 to help unify efforts to combat pollution, which was becoming a growing problem throughout the country. Republican George H. W. Bush ran openly as an environmentalist during his 1988 presidential campaign, called for action to address global warming, and took climate change and the environment seriously enough to earn himself the title of "environmental hero" from the Environmental Defense Fund. As recently as the early 1990s, polls showed that about 80 percent of Americans knew of and believed in climate change and believed that it was a problem that required addressing.

It was around this point that everything changed, thanks in part due to intentional attempts by the fossil fuel industry to cast doubt on climate science and the simultaneous push for more conservative news sources that decided to treat scientific consensus as a partisan issue. Documents uncovered by investigative reporters and activists show that fossil fuel companies spent the 1990s going on a public relations blitz that sought to sow doubt in the concept of climate change and global warming.

As early as 1991, a group called the Information Council on the Environment Climate — a front group formed by large coal and fuel companies — began spreading advertisements that called into question the reality of climate change. In an internal document published from the group, it was revealed that one of its top priorities was to "reposition global warming as a theory (not a fact)." These efforts were picked up on and expanded by the large fossil fuel industry. Documents show companies and interest groups including the American Petroleum Institute, Exxon, and Chevron worked together on a so-called "Global Climate Science Communications Plan." The multi-million dollar plan of action targeted media organizations, policy makers, and even teachers with ongoing attempts to create "uncertainty" about climate change. The group's mission stated that, “Victory will be achieved when average citizens understand uncertainties in climate science.” These groups used their seemingly unlimited budgets to cover up data that supports the reality of climate change — including information collected by Exxon itself decades before climate change was a public issue — and present contrarian "experts" who could provide alternative views of climate science.

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As the fossil fuel industry rallied to launch its campaign to create doubt in the mind of the public, new lanes willing to air that information were being created. Around the same time, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh was dominating the radio airwaves, racking up more listeners than any other talk show in the nation and airing on more than 650 stations across the country. In John K. Wilson's 2011 analysis of Limbaugh, The Most Dangerous Man In America, the commentator is identified an "unofficial spokesperson" of global warming deniers during the early 1990s — picking up on contrarian talking points and turning the topic into a partisan issue. Limbaugh himself has said, "Somebody spoke up day in and day out and said, 'This is a hoax,'" when talking about climate change. "That somebody was me." While Limbaugh was the leading torch bearer for climate denialism, he was joined in his march by Fox News. Created in 1996 with the mission of providing a platform to more conservative voices, Fox News has long hosted the voices of climate change deniers. Sean Hannity was one of the loudest of those voices. He described the scientific consensus that climate change is real and human caused as "phony science from the left" and falsely made claims that "scientists still can't agree on whether the global warming is scientific fact or fiction." This type of commentary not only cast doubt on the facts, but also pitted people against one another based on political affiliation.

As these skeptical voices became more prominent, the partisan gap in climate change belief began to widen. According to research published by Gallup, the divide truly started to show up in polling around 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol called for significant reductions in carbon emissions. Conservative commentators including Limbaugh dug their claws into the issue and critiqued the international agreement as an attempt to slow America's progress, given the country's reliance on dirty-burning fossil fuels. Lawmakers in the Republican Party started adopting similar talking points as those being put forth by Limbaugh, and voters started to follow suit. According to Gallup, the sudden shift in Republican voters rejecting climate change came largely from them following the cues of party leaders and political pundits.

The significant difference in priorities on party lines is reflected in the language of politicians that represent the Republican party and the media that voters most often consume — and this trend is not exclusive to America. In Canada, 81 percent of Liberal voters and 85 percent of New Democrat voters believe that climate change is real and is caused largely by human-related greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Angus Reid Institute. By contrast, only 35 percent of Conservative voters believe those things to be true. In Australia, a country where much of the media is owned and operated by Republican billionaire Rupert Murdoch, belief in climate change has lagged behind the rest of the world. As little as just one decade ago, as few as one in three Australians believed that climate change was largely or entirely human caused. As of 2018, still fewer than half of Australians believed humans play a major role in climate change and just one in four believed that the average global temperature is likely to rise, compared to nearly four in five people elsewhere in the world. This is perhaps not surprising given how climate change is covered in the country. According to a 2013 report by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, about one-third of all climate coverage in Australia either outright rejected the scientific consensus or attempted to cast doubt on it. Opinions may change greatly in the country as it faces true climate related crises, ranging from severe droughts to devastating heat waves to seemingly unstoppable bush fires.

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Climate change does not need to be — nor should it be — controversial. It isn't controversial among scientists, who have reached a scientific consensus that the planet is warming due to human activity. It wasn't controversial to Americans who were presented the facts about climate change throughout the 1970s, '80s and early '90s and demanded action be taken to protect the environment and the planet. Climate change is only controversial to the fossil fuel industry — which has spent millions of dollars intentionally trying to obscure their role in willingly polluting the planet and producing massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions — and to conservative media, which found that it could turn science into a wedge issue.

Unfortunately, these efforts have been quite successful. Republican voters continue to refuse to accept the reality of climate change and may even continue to vote in a contrarian manner, supporting candidates like Donald Trump who don't just cast doubt on climate science but outright deny it. Perhaps it will take a crisis as dire and devastating as what is happening in Australia for conservatives to come around on climate change — or perhaps there's simply more profit in continuing to reject science. For now, those conservative commentators seem more than happy to embrace their roles as human embodiments of the This Is Fine meme.