State of the Planet

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Climate Change and the American Political Agenda

When I was engaged in political science doctoral studies one of the areas of research that most interested me was political agenda-setting. How do some issues become legitimate areas for policymaking and what keeps other issues off of the agenda? Why was tobacco and alcohol legal and marijuana against the law? What created and ended Prohibition? How was racial segregation institutionalized and what finally started the process of delegitimizing “separate but equal?” Why was marriage limited to heterosexuals? I was powerfully influenced by Roger Cobb and Charles Elder’s work on the dynamics of agenda-setting, Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz’s work on nondecision-making, and E.E. Schattschneider’s work on expansion and contraction of political conflict. These works from the 1970s and earlier have been picked apart by scholars for the past half a century, but the fundamental concepts remain important and intact. The evolution of political science away from this type of work is why I stopped being a political scientist. For decades, I have tried to understand why an existential threat like climate change could not achieve agenda status in America.

Cobb and Elder discussed how issues moved from the “systemic” agenda, the general concerns that society defined as legitimate topics for politics and policy, to the institutional agenda, the actual place in the legislative and executive branches of government where policy is formed. Bachrach and Baratz discussed how the control of the agenda through “nondecision-making” was a critical method used by the elite to maintain power, even against the will of the majority. E.E. Schattschneider’s classic, The Semi-Sovereign People, taught us that limiting the scope of conflict, or the amount of people involved in addressing a dispute could also influence the outcome of a political conflict. If decision-makers can limit the number of people involved in making a decision, they maintain outsized influence over policy formulation. On the other hand, if the losers in a dispute refuse to accept their loss and can expand the scope of conflict or the number of stakeholders involved in decision-making, they change their chances of winning by not allowing the “three men in the room” make all the decisions.

Our inaction on climate change is not an accident. Simply put, the definition and agenda status of the issue of climate change is easily explained by these classic works in political science. First, there has been a concerted effort by economic elites in the fossil fuel industry, and their friends, to delegitimize the issue by questioning the science of climate change: “We don’t need policy because there is nothing happening and there is no problem.” This was an effort at nondecision-making that persists to this day. While there is very little question that the climate issue has systemic agenda status, efforts to place the climate issue on the institutional agenda at the federal level continue to fail. Climate denial remains the official policy of the U.S. federal government.

The science and facts of climate change continue to become more difficult to refute, in this sense we are seeing a repeat of the issue of smoking and cancer. For years, tobacco companies and the senators from tobacco states refused to believe the science about smoking and cancer. Once that battle was lost, and the connection was irrefutable, the tobacco interests focused on the nature of regulation. In climate change, we see a similar effort to redefine the issue by no longer focusing on the problem, but on the proposed solution. In this view, climate change policy will destroy jobs and impair the economy: “Maybe global warming is real, but it’s not worth sacrificing my SUV for.” The fact that you could buy an electric SUV powered by renewable energy is conveniently ignored.

The efforts by fossil fuel interests to control decision-making, define the issue and contain its politics are failing. Climate policy activists have spent decades working to expand the scope of conflict: to move decision-making to state, local and corporate venues, and out of the undemocratic, lobbyist-controlled federal legislative process. Climate activists have worked to get celebrities to speak, sing, paint, sculpt and perform about climate change. Professional fields like architecture, engineering, management and even marketing have focused on “green” issues. It has worked. Climate is finally firmly on the political agenda. Climate change is a real issue in the political campaign of 2020. It has become a potent issue for political fundraising and is a key difference between the candidacies of Donald Trump and Joe Biden. As Lisa Friedman reported in the New York Times last week:

“Mr. Biden has raised more than $15 million in candidate contributions from hundreds of new donors who specifically identify with climate change as a cause. That climate-specific fund-raising may make up just about 5 percent of the total he has raised so far. It’s dwarfed by fossil fuel donations to President Trump, who took in $10 million from a single fund-raiser in June…But the hard money climate donations represent a growing counterweight to oil, gas and coal money that has long warped the energy conversation in Washington. Self-identified “climate donors” are a new phenomenon in the 2020 election and are working overtime to show candidates that campaigning to eliminate emissions from fossil fuels pays — in cash.”

And here in the presidential election year of 2020, we see an effort to refute the economic argument on the solution to climate change with the Green New Deal. The decarbonization of the economy has now been tied into the revival of the American economy, an issue that has become more relevant due to the pandemic-induced economic meltdown now underway. To get out of this recession, we will need another multi-trillion-dollar stimulus. Why not focus that economic stimulus on modernizing the American economy and its infrastructure according to green principles? We see Joe Biden saying that when he thinks of climate change, he thinks of the millions of jobs we will need to create to combat it.

Donald Trump and his campaign seek to continue to define climate policy as “job-killing regulation” and anti-working-class policymaking. The battle over the definition of the climate issue is a battle over the agenda status of the issue and its likely outcome. Increasingly though, the effort is to delegitimize the issue and remove it from the political agenda. The science of climate change is clear, as is the view of the American majority that this is an urgent issue of public policy. The dynamic now centers around the president and his party’s drive to maintain power. The climate issue is a loser for Trump unless he can redefine it as an issue of government overreach and over-regulation. He’ll try to do that, but his main strategy is to change the topic.

His goal is to move the focus off of the pandemic, climate change, and the recession. None of those issues works for him. His campaign will work hard to ensure the electorate thinks about other issues. Ignore the pandemic, climate change and the recession and focus on civil disorder and whatever negative traits can be uncovered or made up about Biden and Harris. A racist, “Willie Horton”-style attack on Biden and Harris will dominate. On climate, Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell will continue to practice nondecision-making and do everything they can to reduce climate’s status on the federal institutional agenda.

Climate, like the virus, is an objective physical phenomenon that is difficult to spin. Two simultaneous storms in the Gulf and raging forest fires in California this past week are real tangible impacts of climate change. COVID-19 has killed over 175,000 Americans. Their families know they are gone. Thirty million Americans are now claiming unemployment benefits. The video of George Floyd’s murder has been seen by millions. These items are on the broad systemic political agenda and even though they are not secure items on the agenda of federal institutions they are dominating political institutions at the state and local level.

We are living in an age of disinformation spread by foreign enemies and communicated by a president who lies constantly. Climate action requires that we understand the facts and make careful judgments about how we deal with those facts. We’ve managed to avoid the topic for decades, but the force of public opinion is finally ending the era of American national climate nondecision-making.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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james meier
james meier
3 years ago

I like your analysis. As to the implications of your conclusion, As the saying goes, “from your lips …”

Michael Willis
Michael Willis
3 years ago

“For years, tobacco companies and the senators from tobacco states refused to believe the science about smoking and cancer.” Did they refuse to believe or refuse to admit? I think the fossil fuel industry understands clearly the impact on the climate of hydrocarbons but want to control the timing and energy sources themselves.