The United States faces a polarising climate reality

Clinton and Trump stand on opposite sides of climate action—what lies in store for the United States and the world?

white house day
The White House. The US goes to the polls on November 8. Image: Stephen Melkisethian, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

For the first time, Richard Somerville is thinking of installing air conditioning in his home. With temperatures last summer reaching record highs, his centuries-old townhouse needs a little extra help to stay cool.

The esteemed U.S. climate scientist, author, and retired professor spent most of his life studying atmospheric weather and climate change.  In recent years he’s taken a strong interest in science communication.

“You’ve got a whole political party in which the leadership is almost unanimous in saying that this is a hoax, or a fraud, or scientists are incompetent. That’s mind boggling to me,” he said of the Republican Party in the United States. “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

Somerville shakes his head. “This was the hottest year on record, and before that, that was the hottest year on record. Hello?”

The U.S. presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump stand on opposite sides of the climate change debate and the transition to renewable energy. But climate change may be just as divisive for voters as it is for the two candidates. A recent study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC), found that about 55 percent of Americans rank global warming as the least important issue in determining which candidate they will vote for in the 2016 election.

In 2008, the YPCCC segmented Americans into “Global Warming’s Six Americas,” based on their engagement level with global warming. Ranging from “Alarmed” to “Dismissive,” the categories illustrate a spectrum ranging from climate change deniers to those passionately committed to action against climate change.

“We knew that simply dividing people into ‘believers’ and ‘deniers’ was far too simplistic,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the YPCCC, said. “We didn’t set out to create six groups - that’s what the analysis indicated was the best fit to the data.”

According to the new study, 61 percent of voters classified as “Alarmed about Climate Change” plan to vote for Clinton, while 64 percent of those who dismiss the problem plan to vote for Trump.

Clinton has consistently shown support for the Obama administration’s environmental strides like the Clean Power Plan, which aims to put the United States on track to meet the clean energy goals outlined at the U.N. climate conference in Paris last year.

More ambitiously, Clinton appears committed to pushing the United States from a fossil fuel economy to one that focuses on renewables.  Her campaign website outlines detailed plans to increase renewable energy sources, investe in climate-resilient infrastructure, push for transportation reform, and promote clean energy plans that would assist vulnerable communities.

In contrast, Trump has voiced disbelief about human-driven global warming and previously summed climate change up as a hoax meant to swindle the U.S. economically on a global scale.  He has said he would like to “renegotiate” the terms of the Paris Climate Agreement, and wants to reduce military spending on climate resilience. He also wants to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency “in almost every form”.

Somerville, the U.S. climate scientist, believes worries about job security drives opposition to addressing climate change.

Putting a climate change plan into action would require a shift in the economy, and redefine energy sources – but it would create jobs, he says. “It will take a great effort to power the world on renewables. It’s do-able, but it’s a gigantic project that would transform the economy,”

Coal and fossil fuel industries currently employ millions of Americans. While hard to calculate, due to the diverse types of employment, coal, oil, and gas jobs appear to be in rapid decline. The number of oil and gas rigs operating in the United States has fallen 61 percent in just the last year.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the coal and logging industry has lost 223,000 jobs since a peak in September 2014.

Renewable energy may be the solution. Fortune magazine reports that the solar industry is expected to grow 15 times faster than the overall economy’s predicted expansion, as a result of falling costs for renewable energy and incentives to put it in place.

The latest report from the International Renewable Energy Agency says solar PV alone employed 2.8 million people worldwide total in 2016.

California-based Sunpower, the world’s biggest maker of solar panels, supply renewable energy to 255,000 homes and provided 650 construction jobs over a three-year construction period via their Solar Star projects, solar installations in Kern and Los Angeles counties in California.  

According to the Solar Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing solar energy use worldwide, in 2015 the solar industry employed over 200,000 Americans and created one out of every 83 jobs in the U.S.

Despite the demonstrated economic benefit of renewable energy, rhetoric from opponents could be slowing the sector’s strides in job creation and its economic success.

Leiserowitz found, in the YPCCC study, that the number of people alarmed has fluctuated.

“The original survey found 18 percent of Americans were ‘Alarmed.’ It then dropped significantly in 2009-2010, as did overall public opinion,” states Leiserowitz. “It appears that a major reason was the rise of the Tea Party and the sharp rightward turn of the Republican party”.

However, recently the number of ‘Alarmed’ Americans has increased from 13 percent to 17 percent from 2015 to 2016. He believes this may be an effect of the Pope’s speaking out on climate change.

“Our prior studies found that one factor was Pope Francis’s encyclical and more importantly, his visit to the United States, carrying a very strong climate change message. He brought substantial media attention to the issue. “

Somerville reflects on communicating climate science effectively. “When people ask me if I believe in global warming, I say no. It’s not a belief. It’s not faith-based. It’s real. It’s a fact. It’s objective. We measure it.”

Samantha Adler is a writer at Alliance Earth. She previously worked in environmental media and human rights, including Yale’s Program for Climate Change Communication. This article is republished from Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Like this content? Join our growing community.

Your support helps to strengthen independent journalism, which is critically needed to guide business and policy development for positive impact. Unlock unlimited access to our content and members-only perks.

Most popular

Featured Events

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →