Why Has the US Failed on Climate Policy?

Many conditions and trends in the US political system have left us with the intensely anti-climate Republican Party, the blockage to progress on climate policy.


The United States is the only country in the world to have rejected the Paris Climate Agreement. Why?

That rejection represents a larger political failure on climate change, which can be spotted at times like the 2000s, when the George W. Bush administration disagreed with peer-reviewed climate science and fought efforts to mitigate climate change, then in 2009-10, when Barack Obama’s counterparts in Congress killed all attempts to legislatively transition our energy system away from fossil fuels, and now most recently with Donald Trump’s decision to officially pull the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement.

In this article, I’ll lay out a primer of American climate change politics—a story of structures, incentives, and human nature. “Path dependence” is an especially useful concept to employ here, as it requires us to examine fundamental junctures when we made choices that shaped our politics and economy over the history of our country—both recent and not-so-recent—that set the U.S. on a course toward failure on climate policy.

I’ll first describe the important components of this primer, then I’ll theorize the chronology of how the politics of climate change went south, given those components.

While this is a story about American politics broadly, the largest blockade against progress on U.S. climate change mitigation is currently enforced by the Republican Party, which stands alone on the world stage (see here, here, and here) in its dismissal of both climate science and government policy to mitigate the problem. In the coming pages, you’ll see how the Republican Party is the manifestation of many—but not all—of the underlying reasons why the U.S. has failed on climate change policy.


Setting the stage: The fundamental conditions of the politics

In my reading and research on American climate politics over the past few years, I have identified seven initial conditions and two contemporary trends which together form a group of fundamental causes that have brought us to our current state. In this state, the Republican Party unanimously stands in opposition to progress on tackling climate change. You’ll see the initial conditions are comprised of constitutional, political, economic, and psychological mechanisms. I separate these from contemporary trends because the latter are somewhat unpredictable and less foundational in nature.

These causal mechanisms do not function in their own silos; rather, they interact with one another to make the impact they do. I’ll note interaction effects for each condition—i.e., how each condition relies on the others. I’ll dive into each of them in the next section, describing some evidence for each causal mechanism (in no particular order).

Initial conditions:

  1. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

  2. Single-member, “winner-take-all” legislative districts (causing the two-party system)

  3. The democratic nature of primary elections

  4. Anti-government ideology

  5. Legal opinions on money as speech

  6. Fossil fuel relevance in the U.S. economy

  7. “Tribal” social psychology

Contemporary trends:

  1. Broad U.S. political polarization

  2. 2007-08 recession


Initial condition #1: The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Without the First Amendment creating such a strong bias toward freedom of speech over all else—including the content of that speech, in society and in our laws—fossil fuel companies (and their allies in the strategy of attacking peer-reviewed climate science) wouldn’t have been able to muddy the public perception of climate science. This constitutional foundation appears to be a vital condition for holding public opinion on climate change far below the scientific near-consensus that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming. The First Amendment also allows think tanks (e.g., American Enterprise Institute) and media outlets (e.g., Fox News) to highlight the irrelevant scientific “uncertainty” surrounding global warming.

There is an important caveat here. Famously, tobacco companies were found guilty of fraudulently covering up the health risks of tobacco. So, there are limits to free speech; companies can’t say things contrary to science that they knew to be false, especially when the risk of human harm is high—hence the current litigation of various state attorneys general against Exxon for misleading the public about climate science.

The nature of science is that no theory of causation is ever completely certain. We can get close—and in the case of anthropogenic climate change, we’ve been scientifically confident about the causal link for decades—but there is always some non-zero level of uncertainty, which is why science is properly spoken about in probabilistic terms. This unfortunately leaves the door open for political rhetoric (of the Republican Party) to highlight that “uncertainty”— when in fact the science is plenty certain at this point to warrant action.

Interaction effects: For the First Amendment to make an impact on climate politics, it relies on fossil fuel relevance in the U.S. economy (initial condition #6) and the accompanying industry size, in addition to legal opinions on money as speech (initial condition #5).


Initial condition #2: Single-member, “winner-take-all” legislative districts

Our U.S. Constitution also says that we shall elect one representative (or senator) per district to Congress, and the person who receives the plurality of votes in that district will represent the entire district (differing from proportional representation in other countries). This creates the two-party system in the U.S., in which nearly all politicians belong to one of two parties. Why does this system discourage more than two parties?  If we assume some level of mixed political preferences of voters and therefore competition between parties, there’s no incentive for a third party (or fourth or fifth, etc.) to exist and consistently come in third place, winning zero legislative seats and effectively helping its furthest ideological opponent to win elections by stealing votes from the party ideologically closest to it. A well-known example of this is Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential run. Therefore rather than running as a third party, that party naturally merges with the next biggest party that shares its preferences.

A two-party system causes each party to extend its ideological reach to the poles. This means that when Democrats take stances that favor environmental regulation, Republicans become the party of anti-regulation. We only have two parties, which choose to take action on climate or not. Because Republicans have (A) a voting base that’s anti-climate (in simply “for” or “against” terms), (B) a voting base that’s strongly anti-climate (in strength of preference), and (C) strong connections to an industry profits from a fossil fuel-heavy economy, the incentives of Republicans are generally to be anti-climate.

If we had a system that yielded three, four, or five parties—via different rules for how to elect representatives, yielding a proportional representation system—the amount of legislators favoring pro-climate policies would very likely increase, since those “new parties” situated ideologically “between” contemporary Republicans and Democrats would have (A) a more pro-climate voting base than the Republican base (in “for” or “against” terms), (B) a voting base that’s either less against climate action or even somewhat pro-climate action, and (C) less of a strong relationship with one industry of the U.S. economy.

Interaction effects: For this condition to make an impact on the politics, it requires one party to have an anti-government, anti-environmental-regulation ideological strain (initial condition #4) within its constituency, which is inherently tied to the size of the fossil fuel industry (initial condition #6).


Initial condition #3: The democratic nature of primary elections

Republican and Democratic Party leaders previously had more influence over who the candidate to represent each party in the general election would be. We associate that dynamic with the archetype of “smoke-filled rooms,” prominent until the late-20th century during time periods when party institutions were stronger than they are today.

Nowadays, voters choose their party’s nominee in primary elections, usurping the previous power of party “elites.” In the 2016 election, the success of party outsiders like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Bernie Sanders showed that candidates who appeal to the base of each party—sometimes only needing to win 10% or 15% of the total voting public’s support to win more votes than the next primary challenger, and therefore eventually representing their party, regardless of the party “insiders’” opinions of them—can emerge victorious in primaries and even general elections with low turnout.

So when the most conservative faction of the Republican Party (see: the Tea Party and the House Freedom Caucus) comes to stridently oppose any governmental action on climate change, it becomes way harder for a pro-climate Republican to win a primary election.

It’s not necessarily true that primaries becoming more democratic has made the chances for climate action worse on its own. But because the fossil fuel industry and its accompanying ideological partners have realized the power of the small sliver of America that is the Republican primary voting base and have persuaded the conservative base that climate action is evil, Republicans must now be anti-climate to win a primary election.

Interaction effects: For the most active conservative voters to make an impact on climate politics through primary elections, the fossil fuel industry must be massively profitable and politically active (initial condition #6), and the anti-government ideology must exist in the Republican Party (initial condition #4).


Initial condition #4: Anti-government ideology

This is an obvious one. Think of Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand. Since America’s founding, anti-government sentiment has been dominant in our political culture. The tax activist Grover Norquist’s group Americans for Tax Reform exemplifies this underlying element of Republican ideology with it's statement: “Americans for Tax Reform opposes all tax increases as a matter of principle.” A group with a similar ideology, Americans for Prosperity (known for being founded by the Koch brothers), pushed the “No Climate Tax” pledge back in 2008, right before the Congressional war over a deal to cap U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, which ultimately failed.

This ideological strain—present far more among Republican elites than base voters—has an impact that’s tough to isolate and therefore whose causal strength is tough to figure out on its own. But it’s a necessary component to identify in American climate politics.


Initial condition #5: Legal opinions on money as speech

Here’s where the Supreme Court comes in. In 1976, the Supreme Court decided that money was equivalent to (political) speech in the landmark case Buckley v. Valeo, placing it under the protection of the First Amendment. Then in their infamous 2010 decision regarding the case Citizens United v. FEC, the Court decided that independent expenditures on elections by outside groups couldn’t be limited, opening the door for Super PACs and similar organizations to increase both their spending on election advertising and their ability to exert leverage on political actors via threat of adversarial campaign spending—something theoretically quite potent.

In general, the precise impact of various forms of campaign spending by outside groups isn’t very well known. But popular political discourse places lots of emphasis on “big money” impacting what politicians think. In the case of climate change, the way Republicans reflexively oppose anything that would hurt the fossil fuel industry shows some potential influence. However, the perennial problem of difficult-to-prove-causation again rears its head here. It’s nearly impossible to know if a politician acts because of their own ideology, or their constituents’ views, or because they’ve been affected by industry money or socialization. Regardless, the large amount of money spent by fossil fuel companies against government action on climate change correlating with vast Republican opposition to objective climate science should keep our investigative sensibilities targeted on money in politics.

Interaction effects: To make an impact on climate obstructionism, money in politics relies on the First Amendment (initial condition #1), anti-government ideology (initial condition #4), and fossil fuel industry size (initial condition #6).


Initial condition #6: Fossil fuel relevance in the U.S. economy

By any account, the fossil fuel industry has played a crucial role in policy inaction. The U.S. is a massive producer of fossil fuels such as coal (although production is decreasing), oil, and gas. American land and water simply contain massive reserves of extractable hydrocarbons, and our capitalist economy propels the production of—and profiteering from—most of those resources. Because the fossil fuel industry is quite profitable, those companies are incentivized to be politically active—both in their public messaging, which often runs contrary to peer-reviewed climate science (but is legal thanks to the First Amendment) and in their lobbying and campaign spending (also thanks to the First Amendment, as well as certain Supreme Court decisions).

We see some evidence of fossil fuel production-heavy states leaning largely towards anti-climate science and mitigation policy. In addition to industry likely having some impact on what a given region or state’s people think of climate science and potential government regulation, or on campaigns, basic material interest would predict that people whose livelihoods are dependent on the profitability of fossil fuels would be more resistant to economic disruption.

Interaction effects: To matter, this relies on corporations being able to affect politics, per the First Amendment (initial condition #1), anti-government ideology (initial condition #4), and legal opinions on money as speech (initial condition #5).


Initial condition #7: “Tribal” social psychology

Though ideal democratic theory tells us that voters absorb information through unbiased sources and decide their political views based on the merits of “rational” arguments, myriad evidence suggests that this is not the case. Lots of political science and psychology research over the past few decades, as recounted in the 2016 book Democracy for Realists by Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen, shows us that most people vote based on their tribal political (party) identity (as opposed to the content of policies), which largely depends on how they were raised and the people that surround their contemporary lives—which, it’s important to mention, is not necessarily “irrational.”

I list this fundamental causal mechanism last because it doesn’t inherently have any impact on people’s views on climate change science and policy. Rather, once certain forces (like denial of climate science, or industry influence on politicians) take over, our tribal social psychology causes political views to be “sticky,” that is, resistant to change.

So even though climate science has grown stronger over the past few decades, because a handful of other factors have created strong anti-climate political forces, voters’ views are unlikely to change based on dispassionate analysis of science.

Interaction effects: For “tribal” social psychology to make any impact here, all the rest of the of the initial conditions (#1-6) must have created a situation in which anti-climate action sentiments predominate among certain social groups. Tribalism simply makes the positions of these groups far harder to change.


Contemporary trend #1: Broad U.S. political polarization

By this point, everybody knows that the U.S. is politically polarized. Unfortunately, the issue of climate change was thrown into the fire of U.S. politics right as the two sides were beginning to grow apart. Over the past few decades, congressional voting trends have aligned more and more along party lines, and public opinion on many issues (both political and cultural) has diverged further. One oft-cited example of polarization’s social effects is the increase in percentage of both Republicans and Democrats who would be upset if their children married people from the other party.

This was visible in 2009 and 2010, right after Obama was elected, when Congressional Democrats and the White House were working on passing major health care reform and, separately, global warming legislation. The Affordable Care Act finally reached the required number of votes to pass, but a legislative effort to cap U.S. greenhouse emissions (via a “cap-and-trade” policy) known as “Waxman-Markey” failed in the Senate (announced in mid-2010), after passing the House by a slim 219-212 margin. As both The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza and Harvard’s Theda Skocpol note in their accounts of the cap-and-trade failure, many members of Congress encountered Tea Party activists, just beginning to get politically involved at that new post-Obama election time, who as we’ve mentioned are entirely (and passionately) against government involvement generally and environmental regulation in particular. What little bipartisanship engagement that existed on the issue completely disappeared and hasn’t returned—and there’s no evidence that even “conservative” mitigation ideas like a carbon tax (even coupled with a decrease in the corporate income tax) would draw any Republican support whatsoever.


Contemporary trend #2: 2007-08 recession

The Great Recession is another trend that possibly impacted the 2009-2010 Congressional effort to cap U.S. greenhouse emissions, causing people to worry more about increased economic hardship associated with climate change mitigation (in this case, in the form of energy price increases driven by government policy). Additionally, the Obama White House and Congressional Democrats had to work on the economic bailout package and financial reform right out of the gate, likely limiting the time and resources they were able to devote to developing and passing climate mitigation policies while Democrats still controlled Congress and the White House (2009 and 2010).

To be clear, I’m not aware of much evidence confirming the counterfactual: that if the recession had not occurred, the cap-and-trade effort would have succeeded, or our climate politics would somehow be in a better place today. But the notion that a massive economic crisis might have affected collective willingness to fundamentally restructure the energy industry is intuitively persuasive, at the very least, and supported by some public opinion research.


A chronological theory of causation

Imagine that climate change hasn’t been an issue in the political arena, but all these conditions exist, as they do in American politics. Then one day, climate change enters the political stage. The causal chronology likely goes something like this (with initial conditions and contemporary trends bolded):

  1. Fossil fuel companies are profitable, per the industry’s natural size (and don’t forget capitalism). Those companies fear regulation that would harm their profits, so they begin (A) public relations campaigns to alter public opinion on climate science [allowable, per the First Amendment] and (B) get politically active, spending money on elections and lobbying [allowable, per legal opinions on money as speech].

  2. The Republican Party, which was ripe for another anti-tax, anti-regulation stance, already broadly polarized from Democrats, and had a passionate, ideological Tea Party base, begins to embrace the anti-climate science and policy stance, particularly on the far right.

  3. With 40-50% of the public not understanding the truth of climate science, conservative media and think-tank opinion leaders repeat the same anti-climate rhetoric [per the First Amendment], allowing the stance to harden as an “establishment” Republican position.

  4. American citizens are economically depressed from the recession and less amenable to higher personal bills to pay.

  5. “Tribal” social psychology solidifies the Republican anti-climate stance and makes it resistant to change.


I lay out the various initial conditions and contemporary trends as theoretical reasons—that is, there’s enough evidence to hypothesize they have some significant effect on U.S. climate change politics. However, upon looking further at the existing evidence, or upon exposing new evidence, it’s very possible that some of these mechanisms don’t have much impact at all. It’s our job as social scientists to dig deeper to better understand the various forms of causation in the system of climate politics. Some of this work has been done, but we’re responsible for uncovering and analyzing far more evidence.

It’s especially important to conceive of these conditions—their constituent structures, and the incentives they create—in order to understand if our political system remains vulnerable to failure to create some policy to mitigate the problem on another issue similar to climate change. For example, what if science begins to tell us that a massive industry (e.g., tech) is evidentially inflicting harm on people or other species (e.g., through the use of their products), and the government needs to intervene to minimize aggregate social harm? Do we think Congress would act appropriately? It’s tough to say for sure without knowing the specifics of the issue and therefore what the range of appropriate policy responses, but given that the initial conditions described in this article still exist in strong form, our political system remains vulnerable to some degree of continued failure.


What do we do now?

Assuming you agree with climate scientists and policy advocates who stand for government intervention in the energy economy to decrease our greenhouse gas emissions, we have a few options. We can attack each of the causal mechanisms that brought us to this place, aiming to mitigate their impact. Some examples: One could choose to (A) work on the legal battle to challenge the ruling on political money as speech, (B) work in communications or grassroots organizing to try to affect the (polarized) public opinion on climate change—the public as a whole, specifically the Democratic base (to elevate the issue for Democratic candidates), or specifically the Republican base (to chip away at the anti-climate stance of that voter base), or (C) advocate for changes to our system of legislative representation. Knowledge of our political system can show us some ways that are very likely to make some kind of difference in the state of U.S. climate politics.

We also must keep studying this political system, aiming to expose the truly potent fundamental causal drivers of inaction—and if it turns out that, say, the ability for independent groups to seriously sway elections in a massive way is among the biggest barriers to climate mitigation policies, we should seriously consider fighting that battle over others. In addition, we need to keep studying the effectiveness of the methods of policy change (grassroots organizing, lobbying, writing for public audiences) to figure out the best strategies to employ to attack the various causal mechanisms.

Regardless of the path chosen, we should fight to tear down the political barriers that the evidence dictates matter the most.  

Sam Zacher is a PhD student in political science at Yale University studying how interest groups can improve their strategies for success on issues like climate change. He tweets @samzacher

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