Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The Costs of Political Polarization and Gridlock

Although some Republican officials have signaled a willingness to work on mitigation and adaptation policies, political promises to address climate change still largely come from only one party: the Democrats. In fact, according to the Center for American Progress, 139 members of the 117th Congress reject climate science and the reality of a warming world; all 139 are Republicans. State governors follow a similar pattern with several Republican governors vowing to fight the Biden Administration’s efforts to lower emissions before specific policy proposals even surface.

Climate change is not the only problem that is complicated by the political polarization that pervades our political and social institutions, but it is likely the problem that will cost future generations the most. The most recent IPCC report is clear: we can avoid the worst-case scenarios for warming only if we act today. As I write this, Democratic members of Congress cannot even reach agreement among themselves about how much to spend on pressing problems including climate change. The political gridlock shows no signs of abating. It is the source of the anger and anxiety that Jessie Owley describes in her blog post.

Can we assess the costs of this political failure to address climate change? Newer climate models suggest that costs are high. These models, which are considered in the latest IPCC assessment, use a set of five narratives about the future of global socioeconomic development to forecast different warming scenarios. Created by an international team of experts, these five “shared socioeconomic pathways” offer different visions of the future based on the influence of various socioeconomic factors.

The “regional rivalry” narrative (SSP 3) is the worst-case scenario because it presents the steepest challenges to both mitigation and adaptation. This is a world defined by rising nationalism and decreasing global cooperation. It is a 4°C world unable to adapt because democratic institutions fail, and cooperation is impossible. Although this development narrative contemplates rivalry at a global scale, political gridlock and polarization at the domestic level only make the international trends in that direction more likely—especially when these divisions undermine climate policies in wealthy nations like the United States.

In their blog post, J.B. Ruhl and Jim Salzman modify the Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” thought experiment to give the lawmaker knowledge that the world will warm to 4oC over the next 200 years. Their post made me wonder what effect this knowledge would have on our foundational constitutional commitments. Understanding that society will have to adapt to a warming world, we would no doubt want to make possible the kind of anticipatory and adaptive governance that they envision. But could we accomplish this without throwing out much of our constitutional structure?

Would we make different choices? For example, our constitutional structure is designed to make laws difficult to enact and change. Would we design our political institutions differently so that it is easier to change the status quo? Would we give states less control over national elections? Would we preclude political gerrymandering of election districts? And would we be willing to commit ourselves to limitations on speech that current First Amendment doctrine does not? For example, would we permit the regulation of false and misleading speech when it undermines the ability of others to speak? Would we commit ourselves to meaningful regulation of money in politics?

These are big questions that would ignite contentious debates today. I do not mean to suggest answers, but only to highlight some of the constitutional commitments that enable or at least aggravate political polarization and ideological division—and to acknowledge that these commitments are deeply entrenched in our constitutional culture. Ideas and norms grounded in the separation of powers, federalism, and free speech are not easily challenged.

So, if we are to break the gridlock on climate change, we will need climate change to break out of its partisan prison. Work in cultural cognition studies shows that people will hold onto beliefs even when credible evidence proves them wrong when those beliefs are closely tied to their social and cultural identities. If acknowledging the scientific consensus regarding human-caused climate change requires breaking from your group’s belief system, then it is less costly to you to continue denying it. We are seeing this dynamic play out with the anti-vaccination movement during the Covid-19 pandemic as some anti-vaccine groups invent new narratives to justify their continued rejection of vaccine safety and efficacy.

There are signs that the cost-benefit calculus is shifting for some Republicans in Congress who now acknowledge the threat that climate change poses. We need more of these voices to speak now and speak loudly. There was a moment about thirty years ago when climate change had more bipartisan support. It must happen again. Although we may feel today that we have little in common with people on the other side of the political divide, we will share in whatever future we make for ourselves now. The costs of continued gridlock are simply too great to give up on bridging the divide.

- Shannon Roesler, Professor of Law, University of Iowa College of Law.


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