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A Partisan Divide: Perceptions of COP21 in the United States

 
Picture of Brandon Greenblatt
A Partisan Divide: Perceptions of COP21 in the United States
by Brandon Greenblatt - 21 January 2016
 
Brandon Greenblatt // 21 January 2016 // #Election2016 #GoingGreen

Our last blog post contained an interview with Professor Mark Giordano of Georgetown University and Professor Daniel Horton of Northwestern University.  The two professors kindly discussed their initial reactions to the COP21 climate summit held in Paris this past December.

When asked about the greatest obstacles to combatting climate change in the United States, both professors noted the immense partisan divide between our two major political parties: the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.  Many in the Republican Party have historically emerged as climate change skeptics, initially arguing that global warming was not occurring and then ultimately acknowledging that any changes to global temperatures are naturally caused.  Democrats, in contrast, tend to accept climate change as a man-induced phenomenon and support policies to increase energy efficiency, protect the environment, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Today, the overwhelming majority scientists agree that global warming is real, it is human-caused, it is happening now, it is a threat to our well-being – but also that it is solvable. 

Still, this partisan divide was evident not only in how individual Americans responded to the COP21 summit, but also in how it was covered by the American news media.  As I followed along with the climate negotiations, I made a few observations about this issue that I’d like to share. 

Overall, and somewhat remarkably when you think about the political climate a few years ago, most Americans and the news media were pretty receptive to the COP21 summit.  Prior to the meetings in Paris, many Americans hoped that COP21 would be an opportunity to radically alter the way we approach climate change.  COP21 was perceived as a time to step up and accept our responsibility – both for past transgressions against the environment and for the duty of improving future sustainability practices.

»COP21 was perceived as a time to step up and accept our responsibility – both for past transgressions against the environment and for the duty of improving future sustainability practices.«

In its initial coverage of the summit, the American news media largely reflected this popular sentiment.  While the reporting remained objective, factually reporting on the summit’s proceedings, the general tone of news reports remained largely hopeful and appreciative.  The Washington Post – a national and nonpartisan news agency – published an article on December 12, 2015 with the headline “196 countries approve historic climate agreement.”  Though subtle, this headline certainly showcases how the news media was undoubtedly impressed with COP21’s outcomes.  The article went on to reflect a sense of appreciation for all those parties involved and expressed optimism regarding the tenets of the agreement. The article stated, “The agreement, adopted after 13 days of intense bargaining in a Paris suburb, puts the world’s nations on a course that could fundamentally change the way energy is produced and consumed, gradually reducing reliance on fossil fuels in favor of cleaner forms of energy.” 

»196 countries approve historic climate agreement.«

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December 12, 2015

Of course, many members of the American media establishment were critical of the proceedings at COP21.  Fox News, a conservative and Republican news agency, published a series of pieces decrying the negotiations in Paris.  From the very beginning of the summit, Fox News commentators and reporters expressed their displeasure.  An article published on December 1, 2015 was headlined, “In Paris, Obama worships at the altar of Europe’s real religion: Climate change.”  The article continued with an equally critical tone, stating that, “For the twenty-first time, diplomats and camp followers are gathering to bemoan the possible future effects of the four percent of Earth’s carbon cycle for which human activity is responsible.” 

 

»In Paris, Obama worships at the altar of Europe's real religion: Climate change.«

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December 1, 2015

Other articles published by Fox News criticized the United States’ involvement in the negotiations, but not for the reasons you would probably expect.  One article began by immediately attacking not the perception of climate change as being caused by humans, but rather that, “car service, hotels, and accommodations for the president [President Obama, a Democrat] and other administration officials to attend climate change talks in Paris are costing taxpayers nearly $2 million,” implying that President Obama’s participation in the conference is too costly for the American taxpayer. 

Conservative news organizations, such as Fox News, were not the only ones to express strong political opinions.  MSNBC, a news service often characterized as left-wing and liberal, was optimistic about the deal reached at COP21.  On December 14, one day after the summit’s conclusion, MSNBC published an article claiming, “Obama’s success at climate summit puts world on a new path.” MSNBC’s article went on to reaffirm that climate change is man-made, stating that, “This [COP21 negotiations] is all very encouraging, but anyone dusting off their hands and hanging a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner is missing the point: there’s an enormous amount of hard work ahead.” 

 
»Obama’s success at climate summit puts world on a new path.«

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December 14, 2015

These radically different responses to COP21, particularly between Fox News and MSNBC, clearly highlight the deep tensions that climate change evokes among American citizens.  In my opinion, it is almost inconceivable that Fox News would ever acknowledge climate change and that MSNBC would criticize a Democratic president such as Barack Obama. 

Of course, nothing illustrates this partisan divide more clearly than the statements of politicians themselves.  On January 12, 2016, President Obama delivered his State of the Union address to Congress.  During this annual speech, the President of the United States updates the American people and members of his government on issues facing the country.  Often times, the President outlines his upcoming policies and calls for cooperation between the political parties so that progress can be achieved.  This State of the Union, President Obama’s last such speech, was a little bit different.  Rather than outline policies, President Obama laid out his vision for the future of the United States – a vision that he hopes will extend far beyond his time in office. 

One of the four issues on which President Obama spoke was climate change.  He expressed optimism that many Americans have started to accept the reality of climate change, but he also levied a criticism at those who still resist.  President Obama stated, “Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it.  You’ll be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.” As participants in the Going Green project, I think many of us have acknowledged the reality of climate change and have committed ourselves to pursuing a sustainable lifestyle.  And this post is not meant to praise those who agree, such as MSNBC, or criticize those who disagree, such as Fox News.  What it does show, however, is that although more and more people across the US acknowledge the fact that climate change is happening and that it is an issue that deserves increased political attention, it still continues to polarize political debates in Congress.  Ultimately, the way to move forward on the issue of climate change is to accept that Republicans and Democrats are going to disagree but that, if we want both our planet to survive and political climate to remain intact, we need to engage in these sorts of conversations in a respectful and healthy manner.

»Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it.  You’ll be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.«

President Barack Obama 
January 12, 2016

 


Brandon Greenblatt is a student majoring in International Affairs and studying German at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and originally from Matthews, North Carolina. Brandon is no stranger to writing and publishing as the editor of the Western Europe section of The Caravel, Georgetown's international affairs newspaper.