From a legislative perspective, effectively addressing climate challenges requires major and sustained bipartisan cooperation. Since the 1970s, the U.S. has faced polarization of environmental issues, with climate change at its peak divide between 1990 and 2015. Despite these trends, however, recent signs suggest that there could be opportunities to find common ground, perhaps because the effects of climate change have become impossible to ignore.
In a recent paper, published in the journal Climatic Change, UC Santa Barbara and University of Colorado-Boulder researchers analyzed major state-level decarbonization legislation to examine which policy characteristics and political contexts correlate with bill passage. In the U.S, state actors are key drivers of climate legislation, and can seed federal legislative proposals aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
The study found that in fact, a significant number of proposed decarbonization policies introduced by state legislators in recent years received support from both sides of the aisle. “Out of all the climate policy bills in all state legislatures we examined, a third of them were passed with bipartisan co-sponsors, which is a really big deal,” said lead author Renae Marshall, a doctoral student researcher at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. Enacted bills co-sponsored only by Democrats passed narrowly, whereas Republican and bipartisan co-sponsored bills nearly always passed overwhelmingly. This suggests that Democratic lawmakers often vote for climate-mitigation policies of both parties, while Republicans have a larger voting preference for their own bills.
The analysis also suggests that policies which restrict consumer or business choices – like mandatory standards, restrictions, and increased regulations – have passed less often and have more rarely been bipartisan. “Democrats broadly support climate policies of all kinds and Republicans tend to support climate policies that expand consumer and business choices and use financial incentives,” Marshall said. Democratic-only sponsored bills, in contrast, tended to restrict consumer and business choices.
Understanding where Republicans and Democrats could meet in terms of formulating policies to address carbon emissions is an important part of building broad coalitions necessary to create successful climate policy legislation, according to Marshall and Burgess. In some cases it might mean choosing language carefully where ideological tension might get in the way of bipartisanship, or compromising between incentives and choice, and mandates and standards.
The researchers are careful to point out that their paper is a study of what could be done to build support for decarbonization policies. “They don’t necessarily speak to what any particular politician or activist’s strategy should be.” Burgess said. These results show what types of bills have passed in different political contexts, which could ultimately inform efforts to scale up climate mitigation policy nationally.