Prior to the U.S. midterm elections, Forum's Director - Americas, Sandra Seru, discusses how polarization and disinformation have affected the sustainability movement and created barriers to climate action. Sandra emphasizes the need to come together as a sustainability field to address polarization and create a united front against climate change.

Like many Americans, I’m bracing myself for tomorrow’s election. As if we are anticipating the Super Bowl, painting our faces with our team’s colors, we will cast our votes and then watch, in collective anxiety, the spectacle unfold as we wait to see if our party wins. 

What, of course, is deeply concerning about this picture, is that our MVPs are not playing a game. The outcomes  of this race protect or undermine our jobs, health, homes, and our ability to stay safe from violence and natural disaster.

These are grave, complicated and systemic challenges. Why, then, are we so confident in simplicity – in unbending allegiances to blue or red? How do we come to any consensus when, in the political gridlock of 2022, one of the few things both parties can agree on is that the other party is wrong

In the past seventy years, the United States (U.S.) has experienced a more intense and continuous rise in polarization than any other western democracy. A shocking study, published over the summer, found 50% of respondents expected a ‘civil war’ in the U.S. and 20% felt the use of violence, motivated by political reasons, was—at least sometimes—justified. Two in five U.S. voters are worried about facing violence at the polls tomorrow. This is yet another frightening marker that we’ve gone dangerously far from healthy differences of opinion to threats to democracy itself. 

Climate adds fuel to the fire

Unsurprisingly, climate change has become one of these divisive topics. In a year of devastating floods, fires and mass climate-related relocation across both red and blue states, exactly half of registered voters say climate change is one of the most important issues on the ballot. Meanwhile, 29% of Americans continue to believe human activity has little impact on climate change and 24% think it has no effect at all. 

These views mirror party lines. And despite some elected officials expressing nuanced opinions and other positive examples of bipartisan collaboration and dialogue, when elected officials cast votes they are 100% partisan.  

The implication, of course, is that we are unlikely to avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change, getting distracted every two years by a game of political ping-pong, unless we fundamentally address the underlying causes of polarization as part of our sustainability agenda (more on that later). 

Among many important races that will influence the future of U.S. climate action are five state races particularly primed to alter the energy transition - one in Arizona, one in Louisiana, and three in Texas. However, as in most elections across the country, candidates in these races have shied away from directly discussing climate change with voters, despite it being an issue that motivates many young people and people of color. They are not shying away from other divisive issues, such as Roe v Wade, so why the reticence on climate? If we listen closely, we may be hearing some related, if coded, language with candidates trying to reach voters in both parties with promises of new jobs; criticisms of Big Oil for pollution, power outages and infrastructure mismanagement; and other messages that speak to voters’ livelihoods, energy consumption, and above all, their values. 

Polarization hurting more than climate policy 

While partisan voting has a material impact on our ability to keep climate change below even 2 degrees, there are other ways polarization has infected climate responses.  In many communities, polarization is halting renewable energy projects with emotive responses fuelled by and confused with misinformation. In agriculture, partisanship and polarization further impede the transition to regenerative agriculture; our partners in Growing our Future tell us that some farmers fear neighbors criticizing their ‘messy farms’ and ‘liberal’ views. Meanwhile, for any corporate sustainability professional, this is a material barrier right in the office with political polarization among executives more than double that of local registered voters. I imagine this might be why we are seeing widespread acknowledgement of the business risk of climate change, but only 50% of companies stepping up in US policy advocacy

Climate didn’t used to be a partisan issue - what happened and why?

We all seem resigned to this partisan, even violent, divide in our country. However, not too long ago, it wasn’t like this. As recently as 1997, a poll showed Republicans (47%) and Democrats (46%) agreed that they believed that “the effects of global warming . . . have already begun to happen.” When then-Governor George W. Bush ran for office in 2000, he perceived a political need to adopt a strong position on global warming. Three years later, John McCain (R) co-sponsored the Climate Stewardship Act of 2003 with Joe Lieberman (D), which sought to create tradable allowances of greenhouse gasses and establish a market-driven program to reduce emissions. The legislation did not pass but was applauded by environmental advocates as a significant step towards the development of a nationally uniform climate change policy. 

Fear, money, media - and fear and money in media 

Several bipartisan bills were drawn up in the following year but a number of trends converged in the 2000s that accelerated polarization, with climate as just one casualty.

The first was a rising fear among politicians of being accused of having ‘Potomac fever’ (shorthand for prioritizing politics in Washington above their constituents). Washington converted from a place where politicians and their families frequently socialized, including across party lines, to one in which representatives rarely spent time together. Today the two parties don’t even share the same door to the house chamber. 

Couple this decline in social capital with Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision which provided a mechanism for corporations and wealthy donors to fund electioneering. Fossil-fuel companies began to funnel money through front groups, which used it to reward the industry’s friends and punish its enemies. According to a 2020 report by the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis, “bipartisan activity on comprehensive climate legislation collapsed” after Citizens United.

This was all happening around the same time that the media was materially shifting the attitudes and beliefs of Americans at large. In 2011, the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to present opposing views when covering controversial issues of public importance, was permanently struck down. This allowed news programs to show only one side of issues, leading to the rise of hyper-partisan programming. Meanwhile, social media was also providing consumers with the comfort of ‘information cocoons’, distributing only one, partisan side of a story. Platforms introduced their first ads between 2006-2010 and created the sophisticated mechanisms to keep users engaged and view more paid content; their algorithms started pushing one-sided content - because we like to read content that confirms our bias - as well as an increase in news that elicited partisan fear or indignation, which is particularly contagious and keeps users on the platforms. 

Disinformation and our vulnerability to false beliefs

The cultivation of content eliciting fear or anger has been a particularly destructive trend. It raises our collective anxiety at best, stokes violence at worst, and fuels false beliefs via mis- and dis-information. Those most vulnerable to unhealthy false beliefs tend to mistrust informational sources and/or are socially isolated, looking for a community with similar beliefs. They also share psychological needs for a tidy narrative, uniqueness, and attribution among others. We are seeing more and more predatory behaviors targeting those vulnerable to unhealthy false beliefs, including for the purposes of halting climate action. Social media channels give a particularly large and fast-moving platform for this content that we don’t know how to catch up with at the moment.

We must come together to address polarization as a sustainability field

While the concerning trends in polarization are pieces of core discourse in the United States, there is insufficient, if any response, coming from the sustainability field. Meanwhile there are few more threatening barriers to our potential for enabling a just and sustainable future. The good news is that we know how we’ve gotten here, and can make progress on undoing these trends if we work together. 

  • Get out of our own information cocoons, starting now.  We are all victims of confirmation bias and we must spot signs of misinformation and start diversifying what we read. While listening to hyper partisan news is likely to be counter-productive, there are bi-partisan or moderate groups in both parties advocating for climate and other sustainability and social justice solutions. Through listening and considering divergent views, we can create climate narratives that resonate across party lines. 

  • Advocate for political, financial and media reform. We must come together as a field to agree on, and advocate for, policies that could reverse the rise of polarization. These might range from a Fairness Doctrine type bill that addresses both broadcast and cable TV news, addressing the money in politics fuelled by decisions such as Citizens United, enforcing effective standards for the social media industry, and considering accounting and accountability frameworks for media at large.

  • Influence changes in social media. Social media platforms must innovate their business models and adjust algorithms to depolarize platforms. Additionally they need significantly more resource monitoring content to mitigate disinformation. How can the rest of the private sector funding ads on those platforms support, advocate for and otherwise influence those changes? 

  • Invest in new partnerships and solutions. Many organizations working to mitigate polarization, bridge divides and build social cohesion - including through a climate lens - could benefit from support and partnership. Additionally, we should accelerate investigative research and solution development coming out of university centers like the Cambridge Disinformation Summit and NYU’s  Center for Business and Human Rights

  • Center diversity and social cohesion. Learning from others, how can we strengthen social capital from within our sustainability solutions - bringing people together to hear from each other, build shared empathy, and co-design solutions? Let’s work harder to diversify our coalitions and collaboratives so that they include people across lived experience, party lines, geography, economic background, and racial and ethnic identity. 

There is a lot to celebrate in the climate agenda, from the passing of the IRA to a broad acceleration in climate investment, and it is tempting to think we just need ‘more of the same.’ However, to ensure this momentum can have a lasting difference, we have an opportunity to come together as a sustainability field to address the material barriers of polarization and misinformation - and in the process, undo one of the most destructive threats to society and democracy that we’ve seen in our lifetime.