Political Polarization and the "Green Scare" | WYPR

Political Polarization and the "Green Scare"

Sep 9, 2014

From all the negative rhetoric you hear these days from Republican elected officials about environmental regulations, one might think that opposition to environmental policies has always been a litmus test for belonging to the G.O.P.

It is important to remember, however, that the conservation movement was founded in part by a Republican, Teddy Roosevelt.  And another  Republican President, Richard Nixon, created the Environmental Protection Agency.   Nixon is shown in this photo signing the landmark Clean Air Act in 1970.  In the 1970s and 1980s, Republican and Democratic politicians and voters alike overwhelmingly supported environmental spending and regulations.


A new study in the journal Social Science Research uses polling data to show that Republican public opinion turned suddenly and dramatically against environmental spending and policies only in the early 1990s, while support for environmental programs has remained relatively constant among Democrats.

One of the study’s authors, sociologist Riley Dunlap, argues the triggers for the Republican shift included the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise during the early 1990s of global warming as an issue in need of government regulation.

Dunlap argues Republican elected officials And public relations campaigns funded by fossil fuel industries replaced the "red scare" of communism with a "green scare" of the alleged economic harm caused by environmental policies.  The purpose of the “green scare” was to demonize environmental regulations, spread skepticism about climate change, and protect the profits of the many businesses  that rely on fossil fuels, Dunlap said.

“There is no question that in the early days especially of climate change Exxon Mobil in particular but a number of coal companies were very prominent both in funding some climate change skeptics directly and then giving money to these think tanks," Dunlap said.  "There is absolutely no question that the fossil fuels industry play a direct role.” 

Dunlap said these fossil fuel-dependent industries also contributed heavily to Republican members of Congress and other conservative opinion leaders, who then convinced the rank-and-file that environmental regulations were harmful and vaguely un-American.

According to the polling data by Dunlap and his colleagues Aaron McCright and Chenyang Xiao, the change among Republican voters was rapid.  In 1990, about the same percentage of Republics and Democrats – 75 percent – agreed with the statement that national spending on the environment is “too little.”   By 1994, that had fallen to 50 percent of Republicans and is now down to 40 percent – while Democrat support has remained fairly steaday.

Conservatives commentators disagree with Dunlap's theory about the cause of this shift.   

Karyln Bowman is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she studies public opinion. She said she is skeptical about the existence of a  “green scare,” and argues the change in Republican attitudes toward the environment were part of a political polarization that impacted many issues.

“I think It’s part of a much broader trend, partisan polarization on many issues," Bowman said.  "Think of the other issues: the War in Iraq, Obamacare. You can’t really attribute the partisan polarization to those on a ‘green scare’.”

Carroll Dougherty, director of political research at the Pew Research Center, said Dunlap is correct to point to a sharp change in Republican attitudes toward the environment.  Dougherty said the cause may have been the Ginchrich revolution of the 1990s, and its emphasis on reducing government regulation of business.

“It’s really about the role and size of government," Dougherty said. "Environmental protection and the government doing the protecting is a subset of that. It is part of this vast gap between Republicans and Democrats on the role and size of government, with Republicans wanting a smaller and smaller government and Democrats wanting to preserve an activist government.”

Perhaps in the future, the Gingrich anti-government revolution will give way to a new political revolution,  in which voters remember how much they like to fish, and swim, and breathe clean air – and realize that there is nothing more conservative than conservation.