This is the first in a sequence of four posts taken from my recent report: Why Did Environmentalism Become Partisan?

 

Introduction

In the United States, environmentalism is extremely partisan.

It might feel like this was inevitable. Caring about the environment, and supporting government action to protect the environment, might seem like they are inherently left-leaning. Partisanship has increased for many issues, so it might not be surprising that environmentalism became partisan too.

Looking at the public opinion polls more closely makes it more surprising. Environmentalism in the United States is unusually partisan, compared to other issues, compared to other countries, and compared to the United States itself at other times. 

The partisanship of environmentalism was not inevitable.

Compared to Other Issues

Environmentalism is one of the, if not the, most partisan issues in the US.

The most recent data demonstrating this comes from a Gallup poll from 2023.[1] Of the 24 issues surveyed, “Protecting the Environment Has Priority Over Energy Development” was tied for the largest partisan gap with “Government Should Ensure That Everyone Has Healthcare.” Of the top 5 most partisan issues, 3 were related to environmentalism. The amount this gap has widened since 2003 is also above average for these environmental issues.

Figure 1: The percentages of Republicans and Democrats who agree with each statement shown, 2003-2023. Reprinted from Gallup (2023).

Pew also has some recent relevant data.[2] They ask whether 21 particular policies “should be a top priority for the president and Congress to address this year.” The largest partisan gap is for “protecting the environment” (47 p.p.), followed by “dealing with global climate change” (46 p.p.). These are ten percentage points higher than the next most partisan priority. These issues are less specific than the ones Gallup asked about, and so might not reveal as much of the underlying partisanship. For example, most Democrats and most Republicans agree that strengthening the economy is important, but they might disagree about how this should be done.

Figure 2: The percentages of Republicans and Democrats who believe that each issue should be a top priority. Reprinted from Pew (2023).

Guber’s analysis of Gallup polls from 1990, 2000, & 2010 also shows that environmentalism is unusually partisan.[3] Concern about “the quality of the environment” has a similar partisan gap as concern about “illegal immigration,” and larger than concern about any other political issue. If we hone in on concern about “global warming” within overall environmental concern, the partisan gap doubles, making it a clear outlier.

Figure 3: Difference between the mean response on a four point scale for party identifiers on concern for various national problems in 2010. “I'm going to read you a list of problems facing the country. For each one, please tell me if you personally worry about this problem a great deal, a fair amount, only a little, or not at all.” Reprinted from Guber (2013).

The partisanship of environmentalism cannot be explained entirely by the processes that made other issues partisan. It is more partisan than those other issues. At least this extra partisan gap wants an explanation.

Compared to Other Countries

The United States is more partisan than any other country on environmentalism, by a wide margin.

The best data comes from a Pew survey of “17 advanced economies” in 2021.[4] It found that 7 of them had no significant partisan gap, and that the US had a partisan gap that was almost twice as large as any other country.

Figure 4: Percentages of people with different ideologies who would be willing to make a lot of or some changes to how they live and work to help reduce the effects of global climate change, in 17 different countries. Only statistically significant differences are shown. Reprinted from Pew (2021).

This is evidence that environmentalism is more likely to be left-leaning. The explanation for this might involve something intrinsic to environmentalism itself, or it might involve interactions between countries and shared media environments. But it clearly is possible for environmentalism to remain bipartisan, which has happened in the UK, France, Spain, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore.

The United States is more partisan overall than most other countries, but it is not an outlier. There are other countries with similar levels of overall partisanship,[5] but almost no partisanship in their support for environmentalism: France[6] and South Korea.[7] There is no correlation between overall partisanship and partisanship in environmentalism.[8]

Compared to Other Times

Environmentalism was a bipartisan issue in the United States as recently as the 1980s.

The longest data series for U.S. public opinion on environmentalism comes from the General Social Survey, which has been administered to thousands of Americans for most years between 1974 and 2012.[9]

Figure 5: Percentages of Democrats and Republicans reporting that national spending on the environment is “Too Little,” 1974-2012. Reprinted from McCright et al. (2014).

During the mid-to-late 1970s, support for environmentalism was declining in both parties. Democrats were consistently about 10 percentage points (p.p.) more likely than Republicans to say that there was too little environmental spending.

During the 1980s, support for environmentalism surged. This increase was even larger among Republicans than among Democrats, with the partisan gap closing by the end of the decade.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Democrats’ support for environmentalism remained roughly constant, while Republicans’ support fell dramatically. A large partisan gap opened. The overall support for environmentalism declined, although this might be because support for overall government spending also fell in the early 1990s.[10]

Gallup polling on similar questions only goes back to 1997.[11] It shows an initially modest partisan gap of 15 p.p. in 1997, which grew to an over 50 p.p. gap in 2021.

Figure 6: Percentages of Republicans, Independents, and Democrats who believe that global warming will pose a serious threat to themselves or their way of life, 1997-2021. Reprinted from Gallup (2021).

This change is especially striking because the Republican Party did not change its positions on most issues between the 1980s and 2000s. Underlying principles like small government economics and social conservatism were common to the Republican Party of both decades. The anti-environmentalism of the Republican Party began in the 1990s, clearly after the ‘Reagan Revolution.’

Conclusion

The development of a large partisan gap about environmentalism in the United States was not inevitable. The United States has a smaller partisan gap for most other issues, other countries have less partisanship on this issue (even if the country is very partisan overall), and environmentalism was a bipartisan issue as recently as the 1980s.

This suggests that the explanation for the partisanship does not lie in broad structural or ideological factors that are consistent across many countries and times. Instead, the explanation is likely to be contingent, centered on the choices of individual decision makers.

  1. ^

    Frank Newport. Update: Partisan Gaps Expand Most of Government Power, Climate. Gallup. (2023) https://news.gallup.com/poll/509129/update-partisan-gaps-expand-government-power-climate.aspx.

    See also: 

    Frank Newport & Andrew Dugan. Partisan Differences Growing on a Number of Issues. Gallup (2017) https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/215210/partisan-differences-growing-number-issues.aspx.

  2. ^

    Economy Remains the Public’s Top Policy Priority; COVID-19 Concerns Decline Again. Pew Research. (2023) https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2023/02/06/economy-remains-the-publics-top-policy-priority-covid-19-concerns-decline-again/.

  3. ^

    Deborah Lynn Guber. A Cooling Climate for Change? Party Polarization and the Politics of Global Warming. American Behavioral Scientist 57.1. (2013) p. 93 –115. https://cssn.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/A-Cooling-Climate-for-Change-Party-Polarization-and-the-Politics-of-Global-Warming-Deborah-Guber.pdf.

  4. ^

    James Bell, Jacob Poushter, Moira Fagan & Christine Huang. In Response to Climate Change, Citizens in Advanced Economies Are Willing To Alter How They Live and Work. Pew Research. (2021) https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2021/09/14/in-response-to-climate-change-citizens-in-advanced-economies-are-willing-to-alter-how-they-live-and-work/.

  5. ^

    Laura Silver. Most across 19 countries see strong partisan conflict in their society. Pew Research. (2022) https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/11/16/most-across-19-countries-see-strong-partisan-conflicts-in-their-society-especially-in-south-korea-and-the-u-s/.

  6. ^

    Macron & Le Pen seem to have fairly similar climate policies. Both want France's electricity to be mostly nuclear – Le Pen more so. Both are not going to raise fuel taxes – Macron reluctantly. Le Pen talks more about hydrogen and reshoring manufacturing from countries which emit more. Macron supports renewables in addition to nuclear power. The various leftists (socialists, greens, and communists run separately in recent elections) seem to be interested in phasing out nuclear & replacing it with renewables. None of the parties dismiss climate change as an issue and all are committed to following international climate agreements.

    Kate Aronoff. Marine Le Pen’s Climate Policy Leans Ecofascist. The New Republic. (2022) https://newrepublic.com/article/166097/marine-le-pens-climate-policy-whiff-ecofascism.

  7. ^

    Heesu Lee. Climate Is the New ‘Must-Have’ in South Korean Election Gameplan. Bloomberg. (2024) https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2024-04-04/climate-is-the-new-must-have-in-south-korean-election-gameplan.

  8. ^

    There are 14 countries in both the Pew survey on environmentalism and the Pew survey on overall partisanship. There is no correlation between the fraction of people who say that there are strong or very strong conflicts between people who support different parties in their country vs. the left-right difference between people who say that they are willing to make a lot of or some changes to how they live and work to help reduce the effects of global climate change. https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1h14JsezOloAUqy78MBo_JPpwiAjUcwQ-z8V5wuihUk8/edit?usp=sharing.

  9. ^

    Aaron M. McCright, Chenyang Xiao, & Riley E. Dunlap. Political polarization on support for government spending on environmental protection in the USA, 1974-2012. Social Science Research 48. (2014) p. 251-260. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0049089X1400132X.

  10. ^

    Little Public Support for Reductions in Federal Spending. Pew Research. (2019) https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/04/11/little-public-support-for-reductions-in-federal-spending/.

  11. ^

    Lydia Saad. Global Warming Attitudes Frozen Since 2016. Gallup. (2021) https://news.gallup.com/poll/343025/global-warming-attitudes-frozen-2016.aspx.

    Note that there are several similar questions, all which show a small or zero partisan gap when the data starts, which grows dramatically in time.

New Comment
11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

I get that this is the first post out of 4, and I'm skimming the report to see if you address this, but it sounds like you're using historical data to try to prove a counterfactual claim. What alternative do you think was possible? (I assume the presence of realistic alternatives is what you mean by 'not inevitable', but maybe you mean something else.)

I think it was possible for the environmental movement to form alliances with politicians in both parties, and for environmentalism to have remained bipartisan.

Comparing different countries and comparing the same country at different times is not the same thing as a counterfactual, but it can be very helpful for understanding counterfactuals. In this case, the counterfactual US is taken to be similar to the US in the 1980s or to the UK, France, or South Korea today.

I think this is true of an environmentalist movement that wants there to be a healthy environment for humans; I'm not sure this is true of an environmentalist movement whose main goal is to dismantle capitalism. I don't have a great sense of how this has changed over time (maybe the motivations for environmentalism are basically constant, and so it can't explain the changes), but this feels like an important element of managing to maintain alliances with politicians in both parties.

(Thinking about the specifics, I think the world where Al Gore became a Republican (he was a moderate for much of his career) or simply wasn't Clinton's running mate (which he did in part because of HW Bush's climate policies) maybe leads to less partisanship. I think that requires asking why those things happened, and whether there was any reasonable way for them to go the other way. The oil-republican link seems quite strong during the relevant timeframe, and you either need to have a strong oil-democrat link or somehow have a stronger climate-republican link, both of which seem hard.)

I think this is true of an environmentalist movement that wants there to be a healthy environment for humans; I'm not sure this is true of an environmentalist movement whose main goal is to dismantle capitalism.

I talk about mission creep in the report, section 6.6.

Part of 'making alliances with Democrats' involved environmental organizations adopting leftist positions on other issues. 

Different environmental organizations have seen more or less mission creep. The examples I give in the report are the women's issues for the World Wildlife Fund:

In many parts of the developing world, women of all ages play a critical role in managing natural resources, which they rely on for food, water, medicine, and fuel wood for their families. Yet they often are excluded from participating in decisions about resource use.[1]

and the Sierra Club:

The Sierra Club is a pro-choice organization that endorses comprehensive, voluntary reproductive health care for all. Sexual and reproductive health and rights are inalienable human rights that should be guaranteed for all people with no ulterior motive. A human rights-based approach to climate justice centers a person’s bodily autonomy and individual choice.[2]

It's hard to date exactly when many of this positions were adopted by major environmental organizations, but my impression is sometime in the 1990s or 2000s. That's when the Sierra Club started making presidential endorsements and when several major environmental organizations started promoting environmental justice.

This mission creep is part of the story. Allowing mission creep into controversial positions that are not directly related to the movement’s core goals makes it harder to build bipartisan coalitions.

  1. ^

    “Women and girls,” World Wildlife Fund, Accessed: March 28, 2024. https://www.worldwildlife.
    org/initiatives/women-and-girls.

  2. ^

    The Sierra Club and population issues,” Sierra Club, Accessed: March 28, 2024. https://www.sier
    raclub.org/sierra-club-and-population-issues.

    The title for this page is not explicitly about gender, but to get to this page from the “People & Justice” page, you click on “Read more” in the section: “And our future depends on gender equity.”

Similarly for the Sierra Club, I think their transition from an anti-immigration org to a pro-immigration org seems like an interesting political turning point that could have failed to happen in another timeline.

I think this is true of an environmentalist movement that wants there to be a healthy environment for humans; I'm not sure this is true of an environmentalist movement whose main goal is to dismantle capitalism. 

FWIW, the environmentalist movement that I'm most familiar with from Finland (which is somewhat partisan but much less so than the US one) is neither of these. There's some element of "wants there to be a healthy environment for humans" but mostly it's "wants to preserve the environment for its own sake". 

E.g. ecosystems being devastated is clearly depicted as being intrinsically bad, regardless of its effect on humans. When "this is how humans would be affected" arguments are brought in, they feel like they're being used as a motte.

EDIT: I guess climate change stuff is much more human-focused; it being so big is a more recent development, so I didn't happen to think of it when considering my prototypical sense of "environmentalism". (It also feels like a more general concern, with "environmentalism" connoting a more narrowly-held concern to me.)

From the outside, Finnish environmentalism seems unusually good--my first check for this is whether or not environmentalist groups are pro-nuclear, since (until recently) it was a good check for numeracy.

Note that the 'conservation' sorts of environmentalism are less partisan in the US, or at least, are becoming partisan later. (Here's an article in 2016 about a recent change of a handful of Republicans opposed to national parks, in the face of bipartisan popular support for them.) I think the thing where climate change is a global problem instead of a local problem, and a conflict between academia and the oil industry, make it particularly prone to partisanship in the US. [Norway also has significant oil revenues--how partisan is their environmentalism, and do they have a similar detachment between conservation and climate change concerns?]

Bill Frist, the former Republican Senate Majority Leader under Bush (even though he had a low score by the partisan/zero compromises LCV), is now chairman at the Nature Conservancy (it's even his LinkedIn profile header) and frequently speaks out on environment and climate change issues. That said, his kind of Republicanism is now way out of vogue.

https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2022/08/16/tenneessee-former-senator-bill-frist-elected-chair-nonprofit-nature-conservancy/10328455002/

https://www.linkedin.com/posts/billfristmd_nature-conservation-activity-7114961629628227585-C5BY?utm_source=share&utm_medium=member_android

Republicans in Utah seem to disproportionately form the Republican climate change caucus - they tend to be somewhat more open-minded than Republicans elsewhere, and some of the current representatives have been outspoken on the need to combine conservation with conservatism (though this also means making some compromises with federal land ownership which has become an unusually partisan "don't compromise" issue)

Frankly it feels as if people are not even trying to sell environmentalism to republicans. There are so many low hanging fruits here:

  • Russia is the main beneficiary of global warming! Don't let the commies win!
  • Is pollution making your kids trans? No one was trans before the industrial revolution and now everyone is! We need to stop it before the western civilization collapses!
  • Leftists just pretend to fight global warming to virtue signal, but they are too much of pussies to have anything done. We need real action to protect the natural resources of our country!

This is trying to make environmentalism become partisan, but in the other direction.

Environmentalists could just not have positions on most controversial issues, and instead focus more narrowly on the environment.

It's making environmentalism bi-partisan.

It's too late to make environmentalism never have been partisan in the first place. And you can't just persuade current people in the environmentalist movement to stop caring about all the other issues, except environment. Neither it will work, nor I think it will be net positive thing to do.

But there is still an opportunity to have its own branch of environmentalism for republicans.