One-sidedness is threatening the possibility for rapid, transformational change

In their book Democracies Divided, Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue explore the polarization of domestic politics across different countries, including Brazil, Poland, India, Turkey, and the United States.

They note that the polarization has often coincided with shifting economics, cultural divisions and the emergence of populist leaders who have inflamed basic divisions, demonized opponents, and at times threatened democracy.

Social media has turbocharged the divisions, with new echo chambers that reinforce entrenched narratives.

In addition, the annual Edelman Trust Barometer measures polarization across societies based on economic anxieties, institutional imbalance, mass-class divide, and the battle for truth.

2023 Edelman Trust Barometer: Assessment of Polarization for Selected Countries. Click to enlarge.

One of the most politically-divided societies is the United States, driven by the erosion of the middle class, polarization of the media landscape, consolidation of the two-party system, together with the end of the Cold War, which had previously represented a common enemy.

At street level, the division poisons relationships and everyday interactions as people retreat into their ideological camps.

It becomes entrenched and the anger and division persists while the norms of tolerance and moderation are shattered.

Polarised societies and the climate problem

So what does this mean for blocking responses to climate?

Putting aside for one moment the erosion of democratic institutions that are vehicles through which people can respond to climate change…

a divided society is divided on climate 1 2 .

And they are divided on whether it’s occurring, whether human activity is a cause, whether it requires a response, all the way down to the type of response.

As part of a larger survey, Environment Magazine asked Democrats and Republicans whether they believed:

Changes in the Earth's temperature over the last century are due to human activities
Source: Dunlap, McCright & Yarosh

The results show a clear divide across party lines.

If this trend were applied to the political spectrum more broadly, you might find egalitarian, social progressives who advocate climate policy in one corner with free market, social conservatives in another.

With an evenly distributed legislature, it might result in a voting intention as shown on below:

Of course this is overly simplified.

A legislature is hardly ever evenly representative across the political spectrum. And the black line separating climate proponents and the rest can curve and shift in different directions.

But a society firmly entrenched in their corners can lead to delay or inaction when responding to climate.

The issue gets murkier when it comes to choosing a policy approach.

Even if a response to climate can be agreed, different policy approaches can have more enemies than friends, leading to stalemate.

Nuclear and CCUS might have supporters across the aisle, but it is likely to scare off those on the left.

An economy-wide carbon tax might also have more enemies that friends.

As would an approach that targeted the wealthiest 1 per cent.

The teal-ing of the green

Australia’s 2022 federal election saw the emergence of the ‘teals‘.

While these candidates represent a diverse set of interests, a number combined support for conventional liberal economic policy with climate advocacy.

As we’ve spoken about previously 1 2 3 , the most useful way to understand how people think about the problem of climate change is to do so through the prism of identity and values.

If we continue to venture into a divided world, we need to be smarter about how some of these values might unlock a response to climate change.

Revisiting the four quadrants, the top left-hand corner would likely be most supportive of a set of ambitious climate policies. They would value environmental protection as a socially progressive cause, and they would be sceptical of market-based solutions to address it.

The bottom-right quadrant might be more hesitant to support something as progressive as environmentalism, and believes the economy should be largely free, and left to competing individuals and organizations.

How might you tap into their values and elicit a response to climate change?

You might start by suggesting that early action makes a problem smaller, thus leaving less of a burden for current and future generations.

Recognising that Republicans in the United States value economic considerations highly in relation to climate change, you could highlight the opportunities that could emerge from encouraging new low-emissions industries, which could lead to more jobs and could set up an economy for decades to come.

You might also point to the link between climate change and national security, and how measures taken today can make conflict less likely in the future.

The other two quadrants are perhaps less easy to define in a polarized world.

The bottom-left quadrant is left-leaning but socially conservative. Groups like Blue Labour in the UK align themselves with with left-wing politics, while holding onto authentic conservative social values.

Policies that recognised workers as the drivers of a country’s prosperity, and that supported workers through an economic transition to low emissions might resonate best with this group.

In the last quadrant we see free-market, social progressives. For this quadrant, market-based mechanisms to address the market externality of greenhouse gas emissions might gain most support. This may include carbon pricing, a cap-and-trade scheme or contracts for difference. They may also be supportive of policies that harnessed innovation and low emissions technologies.

The aligning of social progressives and free-market proponents, such as many of the teals, demonstrates how broadening the values stream can win over supporters across the political spectrum.

come together, bru

The idea that groups in different ideological camps can come together on climate isn’t far fetched.

In 2019, New Zealand developed long term climate strategy, together with a Zero Carbon Bill that gained near unanimous support across the parliament. The strategy will serve as a long-term blueprint for the country, regardless of short-term political priorities.

In the United Kingdom, over a decade of Conservative Party rule has been accompanied by ambitious climate policy, situating the UK as a global leader in renewable energy development, electric vehicle rollout and emissions reduction in what it calls a Green Industrial Revolution.

If the rest of the world can tap into some of these ideas and bridge the divide through alignment of values, we can achieve broad support for responses to climate change.

Until then, one-sidedness is likely to threaten the necessary rapid, transformational change.

Previous: You need to talk to people before you run ahead and build things

Leave a Reply