Updated: Nov 21
Today, climate change is one of the most divisive issues in the United States. Concern about climate change is rising in the US, but mainly among Democrats. In 2019, a Pew Research Center study found that 90% of Democrats believe the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change, while only 39% of Republicans feel this way. We have gotten to the point where most liberals want better environmental protections and climate action and most conservatives do not. This is evidenced in the recent West Virginia v. EPA Supreme Court ruling, where the six conservative justices ruled with the 19 Republican Attorneys General and two coal companies to limit the EPA’s ability to regulate power plant emissions. But why has the environment become partisan?
Though it is hard to envision this in today’s political climate, the environment was once a bipartisan issue. In 1970, Republican President Nixon created the EPA. That same year, the Clean Air Act passed Congress with astounding bipartisan support and was signed into law by the Republican president. Two years later, the Clean Water Act passed Congress with similar support, and though Nixon vetoed it, the bill had enough bipartisan support in Congress to override the veto. The next conservative president we had was Reagan, who enacted many environmentally damaging policies, but wasn’t as staunchly anti-environment as the Republicans today. For example, when California sought a waiver to go even further than what the Clean Air Act required under the need for its own clean-air rules, Reagan was the state’s governor. Additionally, President George H.W. Bush called for action to address some of the time’s important environmental topics, including acid rain and deforestation, and in 1990, Bush signed a bipartisan amendment to the Clean Air Act into law. Don’t get me wrong, these presidents did some things that were terrible for the environment, but generally, the environment was a bipartisan issue at that time. And why wouldn’t it be? Clean air, clean water, healthy ecosystems, and natural places to recreate benefit everyone. So why did this change?
The simple answer is the oil industry. Starting in the 90s, they funded groups like the Global Climate Coalition to sew doubt in the science of climate change. They also lobbied for less climate action in the legislative halls, supported Republican candidates’ campaigns (allowing Republicans to shift their pro-business arguments into pro-oil ones) in exchange for oil-friendly policies, and ran ads that denied climate change and the harms of fossil fuels. The presidential election of 2000 was the first time the presidency was contested by a strongly pro- and a strongly anti-climate action candidate (Gore and Bush respectively). This election solidified climate action as a partisan issue and inevitably caused environmental protection to become one as well (though you could argue environmental protection started becoming partisan with Reagan). Since then, oil companies have continued to divide the nation with the money they make off the backs of our futures.
It doesn’t have to end this way. It is obvious that protecting the environment and stopping climate change will benefit everyone through increased mental, physical, and economical health. While the oil industry continues to fund anti-environment candidates, we can vote for eco-conscious candidates. Voting alone isn’t enough anymore, so we must also attend protests, donate to and volunteer for eco-friendly organizations, and most of all, talk about climate change. We need climate change to be on the forefront of our minds if we want people to take action and create meaningful change.