Gridlock in Washington has stopped Congress from pushing through legislation that would have helped farmers, reworked No Child Left Behind, and help companies fight cybersecurity. So it's no wonder Washington has stayed away from a polarizing issue such as climate change during an election year.
But sentiment on the issue hasn't always been divided along party lines. During the 1988 presidential campaign, Republican George H.W. Bush pledged to "fight the Greenhouse Effect with the White House effect." And a 1997 PEW poll found that nearly half of Republicans thought America should follow other countries' leads on environmental issues. Nearly two-thirds of Americans were willing to pay up to 25 cents more per gallon of gas to help combat global warming. Other polls suggested that nearly two-thirds of Americans thought global warming was a serious issue.
So what happened? The idea that legislation would be needed to deal with the threat of global warming became all too real with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, a United Nations agreement ratified by 191 countries designed to reduce emissions. Though the United States was a signatory, America never ratified it and Senators Robert Byrd and Chuck Hagel wrote a Senate resolution that stated the treaty would "result in serious harm to the economy of the United States."
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Though that resolution was bipartisan and passed by a vote of 95-0, experts who study the issue say that was the beginning of the end for bi-partisanship on climate change.
"After Al Gore came back from Kyoto, President Clinton tried to sell it to the American people," says Ed Maibach, director of George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication. "In this case, Republicans fear that the kinds of solutions being prescribed are essentially going to grow the government and increase government intrusion into their lives, and that actually may well be the case."
Maibach says scientists, companies, and politicians should try proposing more free market solutions to climate change—a view that many Republicans have embraced. "The solutions we've debated are ones that would increase the government's footprint," he says. "The consequence is that it's helped convince an increasingly large group of Republicans that climate change isn't real or isn't a threat."
Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that with Washington as polarized as ever, legislation that either seeks to address or ignore climate change is more likely to happen on local and state levels.
"It's unrealistic to expect the gridlock to clear up in February 2013," he said Tuesday at the Library of Congress. "There's very little prospect for serious Congressional action anytime soon, perhaps not until 2016."
Frumhoff says from his perspective, states such as Michigan and California have done well on the climate change issue. Michigan will vote in November on a referendum that would require the state to source a quarter of its power from renewable sources by 2025, and California just passed a law that seeks to address coastal sea level rise.
But in more Republican-leaning states, lawmakers are going the other way. North Carolina voted in August to ban the use of the latest scientific predictions on sea level rise when contractors develop along its coastline. Frumhoff blasted the law Tuesday.
"You can pass laws, but you can't change the laws of physics," he said. "This is a case of science not being just ignored, but being actively dismissed."
Mitt Romney has already said he believes climate change is caused by humans, but has added that he's "not in this race to slow the rise of the oceans or to heal the planet." But with Romney not actively denying global warming, Maibach says he has a chance to bring the climate change debate back to the center of the political spectrum.
The most recent polls on the subject have found that moderate Republicans are coming around on the issue. In 2007, more than three fourths of Americans said they thought the planet was warming — by 2010, just 59 percent did. But last year, nearly two-thirds of moderate and liberal Republicans thought there is solid evidence for global warming, a 22 percentage-point jump from 2009.
"Some of the ground is being regained," Maibach says, adding that recent extreme weather events may play some role in public sentiment. "It is certainly our belief that the signal of climate change is being noticed."
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Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.