Young activist Greta Thurnburg holding a sign over a green background
Jamie Kim / Gavel Media

Things Are Heating Up: The Polarization of Climate Issues in the Trumpian Era

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) sweeping move to reduce restrictions on methane emissions is only the latest of the Trump administration’s rollbacks on environmental controls. The proposed plan will end an Obama-era rule that required oil and gas companies to install technology to monitor wells, pipelines, and storage facilities for methane leaks.

One of the most destructive greenhouse gases, methane has a 20-year global warming potential (GWP) of 84. Over this period, the compound will trap 84 times as much heat per mass unit than carbon dioxide, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. Unlike carbon dioxide, which persists in the atmosphere for several hundred years, methane is short-lived—but its greenhouse effect is substantially enhanced by its quick radiation absorption rate.

Despite the potential to reduce costs for oil and gas companies, several have spoken out against this rollback. Representatives of Exxon Mobil, BP, and Shell have urged the government agency to continue its regulation of methane.

“To maximize the climate benefits of gas—and meet the dual challenge of producing more energy with fewer emissions—we need to address its Achilles’ heel and eliminate methane emissions,” said Susan Dio, chairwoman and president of BP America. 

The major players in oil and gas, like BP America, have taken blows to their reputations over the past several decades due to the growing climate crisis. For them, the costs of implementing the kind of technology previously required are nothing compared to the costs of coming under fire for further polluting the environment.

However, the benefits for smaller oil and gas companies may be what Andrew Wheeler, the current administrator of the EPA, had in mind. A former coal lobbyist and legislative aide to climate denier Senator Jim Inhofe, Wheeler has continually slashed key environmental regulations while seemingly undermining efforts to combat climate change. This is the 84th environmental rule that the Trump administration has endeavored to repeal, including those examined under former administrator, Scott Pruitt. It follows the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and Clean Power Plan, both of which deal with greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation, as well as the elimination of anti-pollution and fuel efficiency standards for cars.

Though Trump’s stance on climate change is not quite clear, he has indicated that he does not regard it as a pressing issue. In a 2017 interview with the Associated Press, he explained, “What I’m not willing to do is sacrifice the economic well-being of our country for something that nobody really knows.”

The Trump administration seems to be making a myriad of efforts to alter the dialogue surrounding climate change. During the president’s first year in office, over 200 web pages providing climate information were altered or removed from the EPA’s site. Rather than disputing information, the administration has suppressed empirical findings surrounding the environment, thereby encouraging a political climate of denial.

This denial, while espoused by some of America’s most influential politicians and businesspeople, deviates considerably from the opinions of the public.

According to a 2019 Gallup Poll, 66% of Americans believe global warming has an anthropogenic cause, as opposed to 55% in 2015. Fewer are intensely concerned about global warming, however, with 45% believing it will pose a serious threat in their lifetime, but this rate has increased from 41% percent in 2015.

Line graph. Americans’ views of six global warming aspects since 2001.

In the same Gallup Poll, Americans are classified into three categories based upon their attitudes towards climate change. The study found that, for the first time since 2001, a majority of Americans are “Concerned Believers,” while the percentage of people whose opinions lie in the middle has dropped from 37% to 30%. The number of “Cool Skeptics” remains around 20%. The greatest difference in categorized attitudes lies with partisan affiliation. Around 77% of Democrats are Concerned Believers, with the majority of the rest falling into the “Mixed Middle” category. On the other hand, 52% of Republicans are Cool Skeptics, 32% are in the Mixed Middle, and 16% are Concerned Believers.

This clear divide between Republicans and Democrats is strongly replicated in the backsliding policies espoused by the Trump administration, which has continually ignored climate science and congressional reports.

Under the bipartisan Global Change Research Act of 1990, the U.S. Global Change Research Program must deliver a National Climate Assessment (NCA) to Congress and the president every four years, focusing on climate science, economics, and human welfare. The NCA of 2018, the fourth quadrennial report mandated by this act, states that although “transformations in the energy sector—including the displacement of coal by natural gas and increased deployment of renewable energy—along with policy actions at the national, regional, state, and local levels are reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States…this assessment shows that more immediate and substantial global greenhouse gas emissions reductions, as well as regional adaptation efforts, would be needed to avoid the most severe consequences in the long term.”

Despite this report, the Trump administration and many Republican congressmen have continued to oppose and backslide on environmental policy. With frequent wildfires, record-high temperatures, destruction of coral reefs, and so many more pressing issues, the devaluation of climate change and demonization of science in politics by the far-right may be detrimental to the earth’s and humanity’s survival. Will legislative policy continue to favor polluting industries and allow the world to continue burning, or will public opinion win out and push society towards more immediate, restrictive regulations?

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