Published 1 year ago.
About a 8 minute read.
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If we continue to be distracted by our biennial game of political ping-pong, we are unlikely to avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change — unless we fundamentally address the underlying causes of polarization and disinformation as part of our sustainability agenda.
In the past 70 years, the United States has experienced a more intense and
continuous rise in
than any other western democracy. A shocking
over the summer, found 50 percent of respondents expect a civil
war in the US
and 20 percent felt the use of violence, fueled by political beliefs, was
sometimes justified. Two in five US
are worried about facing violence at the polls
— yet another frightening marker that we’ve gone far beyond healthy differences
of opinion to threats to democracy itself.
Climate change has become one of our most divisive topics. In a year marked by
devastating floods, hurricanes, heatwaves,
and mass climate-related
across both red and blue states, climate change is one of the most important
issues on the ballot for half of registered US
continue to believe human activity has little impact on climate change and 24
percent think it has no effect at all. These views mirror party
If we continue to allow ourselves to be distracted this biennial game of
political ping-pong, we are unlikely to avoid the most devastating impacts of
climate change — unless we fundamentally address the underlying causes of
polarization as part of our sustainability agenda.
We all seem
to this partisan, even violent, divide in our country — but it wasn’t always
like this. As recently as
Republicans (47 percent) and Democrats (46 percent) agreed that they
believed that “the effects of global warming . . . have already begun to
happen.” When then-Governor George W. Bush ran for office in
he adopted a strong position on global warming. Three years later, John
McCain (R) co-sponsored the Climate Stewardship Act of 2003 with Joe
Lieberman (D), which sought to create tradable allowances of greenhouse gases
and establish a market-driven program to reduce emissions. The legislation did
not pass but was applauded by environmental advocates as a significant step
towards the development of a federal climate change policy.
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Several bipartisan, climate-related bills were drawn up the following year; but
several trends converged in the 2000s that accelerated polarization, with
climate as just one casualty.
The first was a rising fear among politicians of being accused of having
(shorthand for prioritizing politics above their constituents). Washington
shifted from a place where politicians and their families frequently socialized,
including across party lines, to one in which representatives rarely spent time
together. Today, the two parties don’t even share the same door to the house
Couple this decline in social capital with Citizens
— the 2010 Supreme Court decision which provided a mechanism for corporations
and wealthy donors to fund electioneering. Fossil-fuel companies began to funnel
money through front groups, which used it to reward the industry’s friends and
punish its enemies. According to a 2020 report by the Senate Democrats’
Special Committee on the Climate Crisis, “bipartisan activity on
comprehensive climate legislation collapsed” after Citizens United.
Then, in 2011, the Fairness
— which required broadcasters to present opposing views when covering
controversial issues of public importance — was permanently struck down. This
allowed news programs to show only one side of issues, leading to the rise of
hyper-partisan programming. Meanwhile, social media was also providing consumers
with the comfort of ‘information
that distributed only one, partisan side of a story. Platforms introduced their
first ads between 2006-2010 and created the sophisticated mechanisms to keep
users engaged and view more paid content; their algorithms started pushing
one-sided content — because we like content that confirms our
bias — as
well as an increase in news that elicited partisan fear or
which is particularly contagious and keeps users on the platforms.
The cultivation of content eliciting fear or anger has been a particularly
destructive trend. It raises our collective
at best, stokes
at worst, and fuels false beliefs via mis- and
Those most vulnerable to false
beliefs tend to mistrust informational sources and/or are socially isolated,
looking for a community with similar beliefs. Social media has become rife with
predatory behaviors targeting those susceptible to unhealthy false
including for the purposes of halting climate action.
While the concerning trends in polarization are pieces of core discourse in the
US and there are few greater threats to our ability to enable a just and
sustainable future, there has been insufficient — if any — response from the
sustainability field. The good news is, we know how we’ve gotten here and can
make progress on undoing these trends — if we work together.
Get out of our own information cocoons. We are all victims of
confirmation bias, so we must spot signs of
and start diversifying what we read. There are bi-partisan or moderate
groups in both parties advocating for climate and other sustainability and
social justice solutions. Through listening and considering divergent views,
we can create climate narratives that resonate across party lines.
Advocate for political, financial and media reform. We must come
together as a field to agree on, and advocate for, policies that could
reverse rising polarization. These could include a Fairness Doctrine-type
bill that addresses both broadcast and cable TV news — addressing the money
in politics fueled by decisions such as Citizens United, enforcing standards
for social media, and considering accounting and accountability frameworks
for media at large.
Influence changes in social media. Social media platforms must innovate
their business models and adjust algorithms to depolarize platforms; and
they need significantly more resource monitoring content to mitigate
disinformation. How can companies funding ads on those platforms support,
advocate for and otherwise influence those
Invest in new partnerships and solutions. Many
working to mitigate polarization, bridge divides and build social cohesion —
including through a climate lens — could benefit from support and
partnership. Additionally, we should accelerate investigative research and
solution development coming out of university centers such as the Cambridge
and NYU’s Center for Business and Human
Center diversity and social cohesion. Learning from
how can we strengthen social capital from within our sustainability
solutions — bringing people together to hear from each
build shared empathy, and co-design solutions? Let’s work harder to
diversify our coalitions and collaboratives so that they include people
across lived experience, party lines, geography, economic background, and
racial and ethnic identity.
There is a lot to celebrate in the climate agenda, from the passing of the
to a broad acceleration in climate investment, and it is tempting to think we
just need ‘more of the same.’ However, to ensure this momentum can have a
lasting difference, we must come together as a sustainability field to address
the material barriers of polarization and misinformation — and in the process,
undo one of the most destructive threats to society and democracy that we’ve
seen in our lifetime.
Published Nov 7, 2022 1pm EST / 10am PST / 6pm GMT / 7pm CET