Updated Aug 20, 2018 - Energy & Environment
Column / Harder Line

What’s driving our climate and energy divide

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

America’s hot summer is fueling wildfires — and a fierce debate over climate change, the single most polarized policy in the U.S.

The big picture: There are plenty of reasons for this divide. Fossil-fuel industry lobbying is one. Our elections that encourage partisanship and tribalism don’t help. A lot more is at play underlying these factors. Here's a rundown of what I see time and again that inflame our divisions.

Black and white rhetoric for a gray topic

Listening to some interest groups and politicians, fossil fuels are either terrible for the planet or a godsend to humanity. The truth is, they’re some of both.

  • Yes, most scientists agree humans’ burning of fossil fuels is the primary driver of Earth’s rising temperatures over the last century. That’s already having and will increasingly have consequential — largely negative — impacts on our planet.
  • Also yes, fossil fuels are the foundation of our modern-day economy, and they power most of our everyday lives, whether it’s electricity or petro-made plastics. Many of us take our use of fossil fuels for granted — along with all kinds of energy — because we expect to have them all the time.

Beginning with more nuanced and humble perspectives could lead to more constructive dialogues.

Ignoring science at your convenience

Many Republicans, industry officials and right-leaning news organizations continue to dismiss or openly mock the scientific community’s warnings about climate change. This comes despite acceptance of science on other issues like health care and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

For many conservatives, it’s not actually about the science. It’s about the policies that would address it, which often entail bigger government roles—and that doesn’t fit into conservative orthodoxy. Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, Washington’s most vocal skeptic of climate change, said as much in 2012.

Some Republicans are acknowledging the science more, but it’s nowhere near a dominant public view within the GOP.

Passive problem solving

More recently, Republicans indirectly acknowledge climate change is occurring — but still don't say it.

  • GOP committee leaders in the House are increasingly holding hearings on topics like geoengineering, alternative uses for coal and using technologies to address climate change.
  • Trump administration officials tout how natural gas, which emits 50% less carbon dioxide than coal, has helped lower America’s carbon emissions to levels not seen in decades. Yet these same Trump officials don’t say they actually care about emissions being lower.

It’s like an alcoholic going to AA without acknowledging he has a drinking problem. It’s better than nothing, but you’re probably not going to get far.

Overplaying your hand

News outlets, politicians, and interest groups sometimes exaggerate claims that then backfire.

  • National Geographic took nine months to walk back a video it posted in December showing a starving polar bear and linking it directly to climate change. The video became its most-watched ever. The magazine overplayed its hand by drawing a direct connection despite not having evidence, as the follow-up article implied.
    • Spokeswoman Courtney Rowe said the magazine wanted to "confront a correction with the same care and consideration we infuse in each story we share with our global audience." Her emailed statement concluded: "having an honest conversation with our readers when we misstep is a responsibility we take seriously."
  • New York magazine’s Uninhabitable Earth article from last year faced widespread criticism from scientists as alarmist and ignoring scientific uncertainties. It became the magazine’s most-read article.
    • The author responded to the criticism here.

Two things happen in these cases:

  1. They illustrate why some people are skeptical of established climate science.
  2. They provide fodder to claim the problem is overblown.

Human-driven climate change is a slow-moving, complicated global problem. Anybody working in this space undermines their credibility if they make it more than what it is, even if the reality may be less dramatic.


This rhetorical device is common in politics: Attempting to discredit a position instead of responding to a question. Republicans do this as a way of avoiding acknowledging climate change.

  • Republicans sometimes ask: Why aren’t China and India doing more to cut their emissions? It’s a worthy argument, but not a replacement for addressing climate change.
  • What about forest mismanagement? That's President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's response when scientists and journalists say fires are partly fueled by climate change. It’s not one or the other, it's both (and complicated).

Convenient problems

Some Democrats and environmental groups hide behind technological problems to avoid taking explicit positions. The upshot is often slowed progress. I see this with nuclear power and carbon capture.

Most established science says these technologies would be big assets in cutting greenhouse gas emissions — a priority for many progressives. But they also bring challenges, like cost and public safety concerns.

For example, on nuclear power, which doesn’t emit any greenhouse gases, Democratic Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts lists his concerns that must be satisfied before he would support it.

More intellectually honest paths:

  • Say outright that you oppose something for X or Y reasons even though it helps with a competing priority.
  • View a technology’s problems as hurdles to overcome instead of barriers to hide behind.

What are other factors fuel our polarization on these issues? Email me at [email protected].

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