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MSU study finds partisan politics influence public views on environmental policy

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio
Not going anywhere soon. MSU's T.B. Simon power plant will continue to provide electricity for the East Lansing campus for years to come

These days, getting pretty much any kind of environmental policy made into law involves a lot of fighting and delay.

New research from Michigan State University finds Americans are becoming more divided over environmental protection and they seem to be getting their cue mainly from Congress.

Aaron McCright is a sociologist at MSU and the lead author of the study. He writes that things weren’t always so partisan. In fact, many landmark environmental laws were born during the Nixon Administration.

From 'Red Scare' to 'Green Menace'

But then the Soviet Union fell and, according to McCright's research, the American conservative movement (consisting of major conservative think tanks, wealthy families, and conservative foundations) moved its focus away from former communists toward what they saw as the 'green menace'.

"This really came through in the late 80s and early 90s, so this anti-environmentalism of the conservative movement was driving the changing policy stance of the Republican party and it's mostly because of a significant drop off in pro-environmental voting among Republicans in both the House and the Senate,"said McCright. "Whereas the Democrats just sort of continued on a light, upward trend in pro-environmental voting."?

Common ground only found on immediate health issues

He says there is room for both sides to work together under very specific circumstances.

"Other studies that are out there show that as environmental problems become more local and more threatening to human health — like the health of your family, the health of yourself or the health of the community members — then there is widespread support across the aisle for acknowledging these problems, dealing with these problems and trying to solve these problems," McCright said.

Industries acknowledge climate change

While this divide is deepening between political parties, the insurance industry is paying attention to climate change. Additionally, companies such as Nike and Coca-Cola have changed their business practices to adapt to extreme weather. In Michigan, the farming industry is talking about climate change and how to adapt.

McCright says the disconnect between industry and Congress started in the late 90s, when several major corporations stopped denying the reality of climate change and started to try to position themselves as being part of the solution.

"They withdrew their support for climate change denial at the very time when conservative foundations and think tanks sort of took up the mantle and decided to run with it." said McCright."And that's when you get what you have now, where you'd be hard-pressed to find business CEOs who will publicly say, 'climate change is not happening, it's just a big hoax and scientists are just after grant funding.' But you still see a lot of that in many members of the Republican party and conservative think tanks and conservative magazines."


Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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