Hyperpolarization of Climate Politics – The Politics of American Exceptionalism

Ramanan Krishnamoorti, UH Director of Energy and Aparajita Datta, UH Academic Researcher

The breakthrough in negotiations between US Senate Democrats on the climate bill surprised many and refocused climate discussion across the country. If the bill, also known as the Cut Inflation Act of 2022, goes through with fiscal reconciliation, it could potentially cut U.S. emissions by 40% by 2030.

Despite the national security, economic and energy self-sufficiency benefits the bill may bring, it received no support from Republicans. Lawmakers in red states have remained oblivious to climate legislation for decades. The impasse on climate change is not new, but the scale of the legislative paralysis is. Right and left are more polarized now than at any time in the past 50 years. Consequently, climate change has become a prime example of “American exceptionalism” – the idea that the United States is inherently different from other countries – in politics. Hyperpolarization threatens our way of life, the economy and our position as a world leader.

A few recurring questions emerge in the current landscape. First, what are the limits of the powers of the executive, legislative and judicial branches? More recently, Republican arguments against executive action on climate change were upheld by the conservative Supreme Court supermajority in its decision on West Virginia v. EPA, which limits the agency’s regulatory power over reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Interestingly, the view that it is Congress that should pass laws and allocate funds for climate action – not the president and federal agencies – seems to be shared by a majority of Americans (61%). However, in a Congress of narrow majorities, what does this division mean for policymaking, and is there any rational middle ground for climate change policy in the United States?

In March, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) proposed new climate disclosure rules it would require US publicly traded companies to quantify, record and disclose climate-related financial risks and impacts in their statements and annual reports. The proposed mandate aims to build investor confidence by providing accurate information about a company’s financial health and risks in a transparent and consistent format. A little after, SEC Chairman Gary Gensler said in an interview that “climate disclosures are already happening and investors are already using climate risk information. But there is no uniformity in the way climate risk information is communicated, making it difficult for investors to make meaningful comparisons. Companies and investors would benefit from clear rules of conduct. Our role is to provide consistency and comparability.

But Gensler, who was nominated by President Joe Biden, ran into swift opposition from fellow Republicans. SEC Commissioner Hester Pierce opposed the proposed rules in a public statement entitled “we are not the securities and Environment Commission – at least not yet.

The Guest SEC public comments on the proposed rules between March 21 and June 17, and more than 4,400 were submitted. We analyzed comments using natural language processing (NLP) methods. Members of Congress submitted 14 comments, with 215 Republican lawmakers and 152 Democrats as signatories. We deepened these comments through further qualitative and quantitative analysis.

analysis[1] mapped the most likely topics in a document as a probability distribution. A cursory review of the analysis seemed to show some overlap between Republican and Democratic lawmakers. However, a closer look at the terms that were most likely to appear together as emissions, investor, climate, justice and environmental, revealed the divergent partisan priorities. Terms Justice and environmental were not dominant themes in the Republican submissions, while the rest highlight the exceptional partisan divide on the issue.

The sentiment and tone of the Democrats’ submissions indicate they welcomed and supported the SEC’s efforts. However, they also proposed changes, citing that the rules do not go far enough to address material climate-related disclosure, in particular the inclusion of climate-related lobbying and influencing activities. US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, called the stunning omission and a missed opportunity for the SEC.

In stark contrast, Republicans asserted that the SEC lacked statutory authority to issue the proposed rules. The GOP argues that the new rules would violate the First Amendment, fail to reflect reasoned decision-making, and fail a Arbitrary and capricious exam[2] by the courts. Republicans in the US House and Senate have argued in their letters to the SEC that unelected SEC regulators do not have the power to make policy — elected members of Congress do.

Their views were reinforced by attorneys general from 24 Republican states in a additional submission to the SEC, citing development after the deadline of the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v. EPA and urging the SEC to drop the proposed rules. Prior to the ruling, the SEC had found a likely ally in the EPA. In a submission to the SEC, the EPA said it supports the proposed rules and use of the greenhouse gas reporting program, and that the Commission has broad authority to enact disclosure requirements that are necessary or appropriate in the public interest or for the protection of investors.

A notable exception to this political divide was Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat serving in West Virginia. In a letter to President Gensler, Manchin followed the themes and sentiments expressed by Congressional Republicans. Manchin emphasized that he firmly believes that “the SEC has a duty and responsibility to every American to uphold its mission and prevent a dismantling of our American economy; however, this duty and responsibility is unfortunately tainted when the Commission issues rules that appear to politicize a process to assess the financial health and compliance of a public company.

With an equally polarized electorate, it is not surprising that recent analyzes from the Pew Research Center found that 82% of Republicans believe Biden’s climate policies are moving the country in the wrong direction, while 79% of Democrats believe the president is moving the country in the right direction on climate change. Division prevailed before Biden took office. A survey conducted by the University of Houston at the start of the 2020 presidential elections found that a majority of respondents were concerned about climate change and supported cutting emissions, but the devil is in the details. While 96% of voters on the left were concerned about climate change, just over half of respondents (58%) on the right said the same. While that chasm may seem wide, the gap between right-wing and left-wing voters has narrowed in recent years with growing bipartisan support among voters for embracing carbon stewardship to mitigate climate change. What voters cannot agree on is how to decarbonize.

While Americans often have lament the loss of bipartisanship in Washington, DC, most are ready[3] condone undemocratic behavior to achieve their party’s political goals and prioritize party loyalty above all else. Political maneuvering and the corrosion of democratic processes ensue: issues like climate change are portrayed as zero-sum games – what one gains, the other must lose. Therefore, we end up with problems that are never solved. Legislators and voters are endlessly squabbling over the winners and losers of every policy proposal, leaving no room for a rational middleman.

Meanwhile, the verdict of the reactions to the SEC’s proposed climate disclosure rules is clear. A new manifestation of the exceptional and unsustainable partisan division on key policy issues is spreading through all branches of government. The electorate and politicians have lost sight of the fact that when it comes to climate change, the collective goals of voters are increasingly aligning while parties are simultaneously moving away from the ideological center. Absent bipartisan efforts to reach a rational middle ground, American exceptionalism in the fight against climate change is likely to continue and wild swings in the political pendulum are to be anticipated.

[1] A latent Dirichlet allocation algorithm is an unsupervised learning algorithm that maps a user-specified number of topics shared by documents into a corpus of text as a probability distribution.

[2] The arbitrary or capricious test set out in the Administrative Procedure Act 1946 (APA), which orders courts reviewing the actions of agencies to strike down any regulation they deem “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with the law.”

[3] The study found that only 3.5% of American voters would vote against their favorite candidates as punishment for undemocratic behavior.

Dr. Ramanan Krishnamoorti is director of energy at the University of Houston. Prior to his current role, Krishnamoorti served as Acting Vice President for Research and Technology Transfer for UH and the UH System. During his tenure at the university, he served as chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at UH Cullen College of Engineering, Associate Dean of Engineering Research, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering with affiliate appointments as Professor of petroleum engineering and professor of chemistry. . Dr. Krishnamoorti received his BSc in Chemical Engineering from Indian Institute of Technology Madras and his PhD in Chemical Engineering from Princeton University in 1994.

Aparajita Datta is a researcher at UH Energy and holds a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science in Public Policy and International Relations. His research focuses on policy dissemination and feedback analysis to improve energy equity and justice for low-income communities in the United States. and a master’s degree in energy management and public policy from the University of Houston.

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