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Has climate change polarized the environmental debate?

It's a commonly-cited fact, but it's worth repeating: Richard Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency. Indeed, it wasn't long ago that self-described environmentalists could be found across the political spectrum.

The 21st century has seen the environmental movement, however, become the exclusive domain of the left. Perhaps the defining moment was when former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, an environmentalist who clashed with others in the Bush administration over climate science and environmental regulations, stepped down from her post in 2003. 

Today, the right's relationship with environmental policy is characterized by an utter rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change and open contempt for renewable energy. The most prominent examples, of course, are Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry, the oil shills appointed by President Trump to oversee the EPA and Department of Energy, respectively. Both have made a mockery of their agencies, which is unsurprising since both men have advocated for abolishing the departments in the past. In Perry's case, he not only advocated for abolishing the Department of Energy, but admitted when he was nominated to lead it that he didn't know what it did. 

While most of the blame for this shameful situation logically lies with those who are leading the assault on environmental protections, you have to wonder if the environmental movement could have helped prevent the problem by communicating its message better over the past two decades. 

My hunch is that while the environmental movement's focus on climate change is obviously justified, it may have erred in putting so much emphasis on a subject that is so hard to connect to the day-to-day lives of most people. While polls show that most people believe that climate change is a serious problem, they also show that most are ambivalent about doing anything big about it that might cost a lot of money or threaten jobs. In addition, unlike, say, a lead poisoning scandal, it's nearly impossible to point to problems affecting people, such as natural disasters, and blame it on climate change. 

My guess is that people would be far less hesitant to embrace cleaner power sources, even if it meant spending more, if environmental advocates focused on communicating the immediate benefits of reducing the use of dirty energy. For instance, the drinking water that is polluted from coal mining. Or the air pollution that is linked to a variety of respiratory diseases. 

This is particularly true when it comes to local efforts to reduce carbon emissions. The argument that a local utility should shift to renewables to do its part to combat climate change will undoubtedly be received with skepticism because it's a drop in the bucket of a global problem. However, when you talk about the direct impact that local pollution has on the local community, you start attracting a wider audience. 

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