Climate change and the varying opinions on its existence, gravity, and origins have become political lightning rods in the modern age. Along with race tensions, LGBTQ issues, and the pro-life/pro-choice debate, the issue of climate change is a clear line in the sand between the two Americas. Unlike social or theological issues however, climate data seems to polarize the nation along more than just the left to right political spectrum. This is a disagreement that goes deeper than party loyalty. It divides America along socioeconomic and educational lines, which is precisely what makes it a difficult and tumultuous topic for so many. In terms of the climate debate, the working class finds itself, as it has before, caught in a battle between the political mechanisms of the right and the left; manipulated, misinformed, and mistreated by both.
Much of America’s working class, particularly those in southern and gulf states, depend on the oil, gas, and coal industries for their livelihood. Most lack a college education and, at least since the Kennedy/Nixon era, most lean Republican when it comes to party loyalty. Democrats have struggled to regain any foothold or influence in the oil and gas dependent south for at least 40 years. Although much has been said about the political realignment of the South and the various issues of race, religion, and economy that drove it, I believe that the climate debate, and its implications for the southern economy, is as much to blame for the current polarization of the country as anything else. It is important to realize that the discussion about climate change itself is very different from the discussion on the implications of either denying or accepting its existence. Furthermore, one should understand that for the working class, information and its mechanisms of delivery are widely controlled by forces outside of the individual’s control. Fear tactics and misinformation have historically been leveraged for the purpose of shaping public opinion in support of political agendas. In the case of climate change, the widespread acceptance of the phenomenon by the American working class would be detrimental to the large, global organizations that largely employ it. It becomes easy then for these organizations to manipulate climate data and the delivery of such data to a population that is both under-educated and highly dependent on the continued well being of the carbon industry. Furthermore, it is all too easy for these same organizations to influence the policy and public messages of a political organization to whom the working class is already loyal. The situation is only compounded by a political opposition that, although factual in their message, has long been incapable of connecting with the working class on any level. Too often has the message of the Democratic Party been deaf to the concerns of the blue collar fossil fuel employee. Given the historic collapse of America’s blue collar industries, and the rapid loss of labor jobs to automation and foreign competition, carbon polluting companies offer the working class what few other companies can, promising and stable careers.
Personally I accept the realities of man-made climate change despite my own employment by an organization dependent on fossil fuels. Because I acknowledge the very real scientific evidence in support of the concept, but more importantly, because my education and skill set make me employable in other industries. Were I to put myself in the position of a pipeline welder without a college degree, the acceptance of climate change would mean the terrifying possibility that I will soon be out of a job. This is a scary thought for so many Americans today that live in oil dependent economies. The past three years have been a period of continued growth and stability for the greater US economy, yet they have been a period of massive layoffs and depression in an oil industry wrecked by low prices. Many see this temporary industry recession as a sign of more permanent future downturns if world governments continue a global push away from fossil fuels. Add this to the effects of propaganda machines that reject climate science and a Republican party so far corrupted by private interests that it no longer represents any discernible ideology, and the widespread rejection of climate change becomes all too predictable. The Democratic Party lost the 2016 election in part because of its inability, or perhaps refusal, to engage the working class. Long standing frustrations over the party’s focus on what some consider trivial social problems, and a general lack of solutions to the economic woes of the middle class, left millions of voters siding uncomfortably with Trump. The same issues confront the party in the fight against climate change. It is impossible to engage the middle class on an issue like climate change without first outlining clear and specific steps that will be taken to ensure job retention and cost savings in the communities most depended on fossil fuels. Climate activist Al Gore often discusses the economic upside of switching to renewables; subsidies to reduce our electricity bills, construction jobs, manufacturing jobs. But as a voter and an O&G professional living in the deep south, I have seen little penetration of this message in the areas where it most desperately needs to reach. Rather, activists and politicians on the left use traditionally liberal outlets to deliver a message to their own supporters in an echo-chamber of opinion.
It is also impossible to engage a working class lacking higher education by belittling their intelligence and scorning their beliefs, as is standard for so much liberal collective in America. For a celebrity whose mansion’s carbon footprint exceeds that of entire city blocks, and who vacations in private jets, to preach to the middle class about climate change is both infuriating and perverse. These incidents only serve to further alienate the middle class and the blue collar voters needed to make real progress in the fight against climate change. Alternately, the patronizing of middle America by right wing news outlets and the GOP, only serves to further polarize an already divided nation. I believe that Americans are not as dimwitted as they are divided. The problem lies, as it usually does, within the systems that create information and the mechanisms through which that information is delivered to the public.