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Magazine Perspective

Let’s Get Together

Depolarize climate change, on and off campus

By Matt Burgess

Summer 2022

Addressing climate change means getting big things done—like doubling the size of the United States’ electricity grid and making it entirely carbon free. But divided societies don’t get big things done. Society-wide changes over decades to our energy, food, transportation, and other systems simply won’t happen in our democracy unless we put aside our differences and work together, both in government and in our broader society.

Colleges and universities must take part in reducing political polarization. Institutions of higher education have vital roles to play in training the next generation of climate professionals and producing science that is trusted by the public. Unfortunately, Americans increasingly see universities and colleges as partisan, with the fraction of conservative and center-right voters who think institutions of higher education are having a positive effect on the country falling by nearly half (from 54 percent to 33 percent) between 2015 and 2019. And respondents to the General Social Survey, which gathers data on the American public’s attitudes, behaviors, and attributes, became more polarized in their trust in the scientific community post 2015. But there’s hope of bringing people together to address climate change. Polls show that more than two-thirds of Americans now support taking steps to be carbon neutral by 2050, as well as specific climate policies such as increasing renewable energy production, renewable portfolio standards (which establish emissions-reduction targets for electric utilities), net metering (allowing households with solar power to sell excess power back to the grid), and taxing corporations based on their carbon emissions. Nearly two-thirds of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, think climate change is already affecting their local community. The desire for more action on climate change is especially strong and bipartisan among younger Americans, who are colleges and universities’ main constituents.

Research in psychology suggests that when divided groups work with one another toward a shared goal, their intergroup animosities and conflicts lessen. Our society and our campuses can capitalize on the decreasing polarization on climate change and bring people together to take actions that will make a difference for the future of our planet and humanity.

So, where do we start? A big-tent US climate agenda could begin with policies and actions that have broad approval and emphasize shared values. For example, Americans largely support jobs, renewable energy, and clean air and water, and they recognize that these are linked. This support isn’t just hypothetical; it has translated into real bipartisan policies. For example, the recent federal bipartisan infrastructure and COVID-19 relief bills included $85 billion in renewable energy and climate adaptation spending. More than one hundred bipartisan climate mitigation bills have been passed at the state level since 2015. Sixty-nine percent of Americans are proud to be American, and 60 percent think America is exceptional. A big-tent climate agenda could lean into that. What could be more exceptional than leading the global energy transition and race to develop next-generation clean technologies?

A big-tent climate agenda could also recognize and celebrate progress on climate change in all its forms, even if it is not directly caused by explicit climate policy. For example, some coastal states with conservative majorities, such as Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana, are spending billions of dollars on climate adaptation (such as preparing for floods from more powerful storms and rising sea levels) without always calling it that. Private industries are making some states that have relatively little climate policy, such as Georgia and Texas, leaders in renewable energy. The replacement of coal with natural gas has been the main driver of the post-2010 decline in US carbon dioxide emissions.

Policymakers and activists seeking to depolarize climate change should be cautious about tying climate change to divisive culture-war issues. A recent study of state-level climate bills from my research group, the Burgess Bioeconomics Lab, found that climate policies framed using academic social-justice jargon such as “environmental justice” or “equity” or that are not neutral with respect to immutable characteristics such as race, less often received bipartisan support. Examples of such policies include Virginia’s 2020 bill 1042 creating an environmental justice council and the Biden administration’s 2021 $4 billion loan forgiveness program for farmers of color, which was ruled unconstitutional. Another recent study from political scientists Micah English and Joshua L. Kalla found that economic frames garnered more support from voters than racial frames across a range of policies, including climate change policies.

However, a 2020 Data for Progress survey found that, before its passage, 62 percent of voters supported the Environmental Justice for All Act, which requires the assessment of environmental impacts of new polluting sources on communities of color, Indigenous communities, and low-income communities. This may suggest that race-conscious policies could garner wider support if they are narrowly tailored to addressing a specific injustice.

Campuses can also work to reduce polarization over climate change and other issues. For the past two years at the University of Colorado, we have run a weekly reducing polarization dialogue series, during which diverse community members respectfully and empathetically discuss issues of the day, such as policing, school choice, and the 2020 election. In April 2022, we hosted a public panel of members of Congress on bipartisan climate solutions. Participants discussed areas of common ground and ongoing bipartisan efforts on mitigation of and adaptation to climate changes. Instructors wanting to foster constructive disagreement and viewpoint diversity in their classrooms can find many excellent resources curated by educational and nonprofit groups including Open Mind, Braver Angels, and the Heterodox Academy.

Colleges and universities can also recommit to nonpartisanship by adopting policies similar to the University of Chicago’s “Chicago Principles” on free expression, Kalven Report on institution-level political neutrality, and Shils Report on faculty hiring and promotion, which bars “consideration of sex, ethnic or national characteristics, or political or religious beliefs or affiliations in any decision regarding appointment, promotion, or reappointment at any level of the academic staff.” Adopting these policies could alleviate public concerns about colleges and universities being censorious, partisan, and discriminatory and might thereby gain back the public’s trust in the science and research being done to inform actions on climate change.

The work of depolarizing climate change on campus might also help address the crises of mental health and hope that youth are facing. Four in ten youth report being afraid to have children because of climate change. Hopelessness for our children’s future, however, is not a scientifically defensible position, and cause for hope does exist. Natural disaster deaths per capita and damages per dollar of gross domestic product are declining due to development and measures to adapt to a warming world. Faster-than-expected progress on clean technology has brought the 2 degrees Celsius target of the Paris climate accord within reach and made the worst-case scenarios of 4 to 5 degrees Celsius warming increasingly implausible. Despite these facts, youth are continually bombarded with apocalyptic messages, and climate anxiety continues to worsen, especially among liberals. Climate scientists are beginning to push back publicly against doomism, and campuses can do more to engage students from different political viewpoints to work together on actions to combat both climate change and hopelessness.

Climate change is a multifaceted problem that requires careful exploration of a wide range of issues and viewpoints. Colleges and universities can and must do better, by teaching and role-modeling hope, rigor, and pragmatism in the face of our challenges and curiosity, humility, and empathy in the face of our differences. With these skills, our students will be well positioned to address climate change and to begin to heal our nation’s divisions while they’re at it.

Photo credit: Markus Spiske/Unsplash


  • Matt Burgess

    Matt Burgess

    Matt Burgess is an assistant professor of environmental studies, an affiliate faculty of economics, a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, and a faculty fellow of the Bruce D. Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization, at the University of Colorado Boulder.