Fifty years ago, saving the environment was bipartisan. Richard Nixon signed the country’s most sweeping piece of environmental legislation to date, the Endangered Species Act, and created the Environmental Protection Agency.
Then partisan politics took hold of DC. Political scientist David Karol at the libertarian think tank Niskanen Center analyzed (pdf) about 50 years of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) scorecards to understand what has happened since 1972. Karol’s analysis shows that today’s 114th Congress is perhaps the most divided in history with environmental advocates and opponents falling almost exclusively into two partisan camps: Democrats are pro-environmentalism and Republicans are against it.
The LCV, with 2 million members across the US, is one of the largest advocacy groups working to elect pro-environment candidates. The group’s National Environmental Scorecard ranks legislators on a scale of 0 to 100, derived by dividing each member of Congress’s number of pro-environment votes with the total number of tracked votes.
Below are a series of charts that clearly show a drastic shift in LCV scores over time. The 1969-70 Congress saw moderate views across the spectrum with Democrats only slightly more likely to back LCV positions. By 2016, legislators’ voting patterns had polarized between two extremes.
US House of Representatives
Karol’s paper demonstrates no single event drew the battle lines. Instead, partisanship begat ever more extreme stances as party allies and voters, taking their cues from politicians, reoriented themselves to these views.
As the clock to climate-change disaster ticks down, reversing this trend becomes more essential. But right now, Karol argues, the political costs of ignoring the environment are just too low. That could change. He cites the Republican party’s reliance on a declining demographic and the growing number of younger people in both parties who support environmental protection. The rise of the renewable-energy industry at the expense of fossil fuel companies will sap anti-environment lobbying power. The consensus of scientific warnings about the catastrophic risks of global warming, and daily evidence of its advance around the world, has propelled US public opinion on the matter toward taking action.
Yet there’s scant reason to hope major change will come any time soon to a hopelessly polarized Congress. The forces that could change this work slowly. Even groups like the Climate Solutions Caucus, a bloc of 36 Democratic and 36 Republican members of the House of Representatives, many of whom are new to DC, failed to muster a unified front opposing measures like opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, which became part of the tax bill passed in 2017.