In an op-ed in the New York Times earlier this month, economist Paul Krugman asks the question: why have the Republicans moved so far to the right on the environment, going from the introduction of the Clean Air Act of 1970 during the Republican Nixon administration (which passed the Senate, as Krugman points out, “on a bipartisan vote of 73 to 0”), and from the relatively eco-friendly amending of the Clean Air Act during the Republican George Bush Sr. administration in 1990, to the climate change denying, regulation-opposed strands of today’s Republican Party?
Krugman provides a possible answer to his question, writing: “[climate change denying] ideology is only part of the story — or, more accurately, it’s a symptom of the underlying cause of the divide: rising inequality. The basic story of political polarization over the past few decades is that, as a wealthy minority has pulled away economically from the rest of the country, it has pulled one major party along with it. True, Democrats often cater to the interests of the 1 percent, but Republicans always do. Any policy that benefits lower- and middle-income Americans at the expense of the elite… will face bitter Republican opposition. And environmental protection is, in part, a class issue, even if we don’t usually think of it that way. Everyone breathes the same air, so the benefits of pollution control are more or less evenly spread across the population. But ownership of, say, stock in coal companies is concentrated in a few, wealthy hands. Even if the costs of pollution control are passed on in the form of higher prices, the rich are different from you and me. They spend a lot more money, and, therefore, bear a higher share of the costs.”
Income inequality may indeed be the most significant aspect of this story, as Krugman says. Yet there might be some other explanations to this question as well, ones that do not have to do with general shifts in income distribution or political ideology, but rather with specific changes that have occurred to the economic geography and voting patterns of the United States during recent decades. Here are 10 such additional guesses as to why American environmental politics have become more divisive today than they were in previous generations.
1) US Coal Production Moves West
The United States has by far the largest coal reserves in the world, is by far the largest coal producer in the world apart from China , and was a larger coal producer than China as recently as the 1980s. As you can see from one of the graphs below, US coal production used to come from states located to the east of the Mississippi River (notably, from West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and to a lesser extent Ohio), but has since moved to states west of the Mississippi — mainly to Wyoming, a state which now accounts for almost 50 percent of all coal production in the United States. To a lesser extent, it has also moved to Montana (which borders Wyoming), North Dakota (which borders Montana), and Texas.
US coal production has moved, in other words, from a number of states that have historically tended to vote Democrat or are swing-states — three of which, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, are among the most populous states in the country, and therefore carry more weight in elections — to a single state, Wyoming, which has almost always voted Republican and has literally the smallest population of any state in the country (though, because of coal, Wyoming also has the second highest per capita income of any state). Coal-producing Montana and North Dakota also have been firmly Republican states for decades, and also have relatively tiny populations. The Democratic Party no longer has even close to as much of a political interest in the coal industry as it used to, therefore. Indeed, while states like Illinois and Pennsylvania continue to produce a decent amount of coal today, their economic growth over the past few decades has meant that the value of this coal production as a share of their state GDP’s has dropped by a significant amount.
In contrast, coal production does remain a critical component of the smaller Midwestern economies of Kentucky and especially West Virginia. It is not too surprising, then, that West Virginia and Kentucky have not voted for a Democratic president since 1996. While Kentucky was always something of a swing-state, West Virginia actually used to be a staunchly Democratic state back in the days when the Democrats’ interests were more closely aligned with coal production. West Virginia voted for the Democrats in every presidential election but one between 1956 and 2000; in fact, as recently as the 1980 election it was one of only four states in the entire country to vote for the Democrats.
Meanwhile, as the graphs below also show, coal production has moved from underground mining to surface mining (which tends to be much more environmentally intrusive than underground mining), from producing bituminous coal to producing sub-bituminous coal and lignite (which are much more environmentally inefficient to transport and burn than bituminous coal is), and from being labour-intensive to being far less labour-intensive (meaning that there are fewer coal labourers around who might be inclined to vote against environmental protection; this is probably also one of the reasons West Virginia votes for the Republicans nowadays).
2) Texas and California Switch Parties
Today it seems hard to imagine that Texas would ever vote for the Democrats, or that California would ever vote for the Republicans. But that it is how it used to be. Prior to Bill Clinton, no Democratic President had ever won an election without Texas. In the presidential elections of 1964, 1956, 1952, and 1948, Texas actually voted for the opposite party as most of the rest of “the South” voted for, and in every presidential election from 1952 until 1988, Texas voted for the same party as New York voted for. California, meanwhile, voted for the Republicans in every presidential election from 1968 until 1992 (there were fewer Latino-Americans, white liberals, and other minority groups over the age of 18 in California back then); in fact, the most recent non-Bush Republican presidents, Reagan and Nixon, both came from California.
As Texas has become firmly Republican and California firmly Democrat, environmental politics have become more politically polarized, since California consumes the third least energy per capita of any US state (and also understands the dangerous power of the environment, as its population faces significant drought, earthquake, flooding, and forest-fire threats), while Texas uses the sixth most energy per capita of any state, and exports by far the most energy in absolute terms of any state apart from Wyoming. Texas is the US’s largest oil producer by far, its largest natural gas producer by far, and its sixth largest coal producer.
3) Declining California and Florida Oil Production
Back when it was a Republican-leaning swing-state, California was one of the country’s leading oil-producing states (it is actually still the third largest oil producer in the US). Oil production used to account for a much larger share of the Californian economy than it does today; however, since the mid-1980s, California’s energy production has gone down and down (see graph below) while its GDP has gone up and up because of its leading role in sectors like technology, tourism, entertainment, and real estate. Though California did briefly look like it might become a major player in the US’s recent shale oil production boom, that no longer seems likely to occur.
Because California is now so crucial to the Democrats (not only in the electoral college, but also financially and in terms of media influence), the Democrats might have had an incentive to be less environmentalist if California’s economy still depended on oil production to the same extent that it used to. (As California’s population has grown so much, it now also faces greater environmental challenges, such as droughts, than it used to, which has also made it more afraid of climate change, and therefore more in favour of environmental protection). If California was still willing to vote Republican, meanwhile, the Republicans might have an incentive to be more environmentalist. California, after all, has 12 percent of the US population and 14 percent of US GDP, both much larger figures than any other US state has. Thus, economic changes and voting patterns in California have probably contributed somewhat to making US environmental politics more divisive.
A similar trend has also occurred in some other important states. Florida, for example, which in the past few decades has grown to become the third most populous state in the US, has seen oil production fall by an astounding 95 percent or so since its peak production in 1978. It too has become a Democrat-voting state more often than it used to, also because of demographic changes. The same is true of Illinois, New York, and a few other states that have not taken part in the “shale revolution” oil production surge of recent years.
4) Rising Energy Prices
Prior to 2014, the past 15 years or so saw oil and coal prices rise by a very large amount. This rise had a polarizing political effect, since, for the states which produce the most energy per capita (virtually all of which are Republican or swing-states), such as Wyoming, North Dakota, Louisiana, Alaska, Montana, Texas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Utah, and Arkansas, energy production became more profitable, while, for many of the states which do not have much energy production per capita (most of which are Democrat or swing states), such as New York, Florida, New Jersey, Minnesota, Michigan, or Massachusetts, it became increasingly worthwhile to improve energy efficiency and/or increase alternative energy production or natural gas consumption.
Energy efficiency has also been occurring as a longer-term trend in the US (see graph below); it accelerated in some states as a result of rising energy prices in the past decade, but had already started long before that in the country as a whole. Rising energy prices also caused economies like Western Europe and Japan to become more energy-efficient and committed to alternative energy production in recent years, providing an example for many Democrats to aspire to.
5) Rising “Unconventional” Oil Production
Partly as a result of higher oil prices – not only in the 2000’s, but also in the late 1970’s (see graph below) – there has been a rise in oil production from non-traditional sources in North America, such as Alaska (though Alaskan production has since begun to decline), deep underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, and, more recently, in the Albertan oil/tar sands, in shale deposits in states like Texas and North Dakota, and, expected in the near future, deep underwater off the coast of Newfoundland. Talk of beginning to develop the potentially humongous Alaskan and Canadian underwater Arctic oil reserves also became common in recent years.
All of these newer oil sources, however, tend to be more environmentally intrusive than “conventional” onshore or shallower-water offshore production. Thus, supporters of this production (more often than not Republican, of course) have been forced to leave environmentalist ideals further and further behind. Similar trends have often been occurring on a global level as well, and not only in oil production, but in coal production too. And all of this has been occurring during a time when both annual and cumulative emissions of gasses like carbon dioxide and methane are already much higher than they were in past decades.
The graph below shows “proven” oil reserves, not current oil production. The recent spikes in Canada and Venezuela are from estimates about the proven reserves in oil/tar sands:
And finally, shale oil and shale gas:
6) Rising Commodity Prices
Oil and coal prices were not the only ones to rise during the 2000s. In part because of rapid manufacturing, construction, and general economic growth in China (and other countries, to a lesser extent), there was also a rise in metal, food, fertilizer, and a number of other commodity prices (see graph below). Because bulk commodities are often highly energy-intensive to produce and to transport, and because mining and in some cases agricultural production also tend to be directly environmentally intrusive, the growth in commodity production that was brought about by rising commodity prices has been an issue of environmental significance as well.
Notably, as with oil and coal, the production of agricultural and mineral commodities within North America mostly takes place within Republican states or swing states, or else in the Canadian Prairies (in politically Conservative Canadian provinces that are just across the border from Republican states in the US). States like Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arizona, Nevada, Missouri, Utah, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Idaho are significant producers of agricultural or mineral commodities, for instance, and they usually (or always) vote Republican.
Because the largest commodity reserves tend to be in the vast interior states which tend to have either fairly small or very small populations, these states also get a lot of money per capita for this commodity production, and rely on commodity production for a significant portion of their states’ economic output. And the US (and Canada) really does produce an enormous amount of these commodities; it is far and away the world’s largest food exporter, for instance, which is impressive considering that it is also the world’s third largest food consumer. So, the fact that these states have long tended to vote Republican means that rising commodity prices may have contributed to the Republican parties becoming relatively less eco-friendly compared to the Democrats.
There are only a few exceptions to this pattern. The largest of these are the neighbouring states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. Wisconsin produces agricultural goods like corn and dairy products and almost always votes Democrat; Minnesota produces most of the US’s iron ore (the world’s most traded commodity aside from crude oil), yet has voted Democrat in every presidential election since 1972, and in fact was the only state in the entire country to vote against a second presidential term for Republican Ronald Reagan in 1984; and Iowa – an important state in US politics, because it holds the earliest caucus during the presidential primaries – has an economy that is highly dependent on corn production, yet has shed its Republican-leaning past by voting for the Democrats in five of the last six presidential elections (in part, perhaps, because a lot of its corn is used to create ethanol, a more eco-friendly substitute for gasoline. Also Iowa produces more wind power than any state other than Texas). But even Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin were all among the top ten closest races in the 2012 election among states in which the Democrats won; their populations only gave about 6.5 percent more of their votes to Obama than to Romney.
Because of rising commodity prices, commodity extraction has been an issue of growing environmental significance on a global level as well, particularly within the developing world. This too may have also led to a growing divide between Democrat voters, who arguably tend to be more global-minded in their political outlook when it comes to non-military issues, and Republican voters, who arguably tend to be more nationalist or insular in their worldview.
7) Changing Electoral Demographics
Demographic changes as a result of immigration and internal migration have changed the US electoral map over time, aiding the Democrats and, as a result, perhaps making them less in need of reaching out to energy and commodity producing corporations in swing states, or to the very rich or super-rich throughout the country, or to the states which depend the most on energy or commodity production (many of which tend to have relatively few non-white inhabitants, incidentally). As you can see from the graph below, the US immigration boom has increased steadily in recent decades, and took off in a big way around 1990. So, immigration to the US is to a certain degree actually a fairly recent phenomenon (ignoring the pre-WW1 immigration boom, which is practically ancient history at this point). In fact, most second-generation immigrants from the heart of the most recent boom are still just turning 18 around now. And even among those who have already turned 18, voting participation tends to rise with age.
We already discussed the flipping of California from swing state to Democrat state, which was, at least in part, the result of inward internal migration from other parts of the US and external immigration from Asia and of course from Latin America. More recently, immigration from Mexico has flipped the state of New Mexico, which voted for the Republicans in every presidential election from 1968 until 1992, but has now voted Democrat in every presidential election since (with the exception of 2004, when it voted for a second Bush term). In the 2000 election, in fact, New Mexico was surrounded by a virtual sea of red states (see map below), but still voted for the Democrats; it was the counterimage of New Hampshire in that election, which voted Republican but was utterly surrounded by blue states.
Immigration from Latin America (plus internal migration of young liberals to the city of Denver) may also have led Colorado – the population of which is now 20-25 percent Hispanic – to go from voting for the Republicans in every presidential election but one from 1968 until 2008, to voting for Obama in both of his elections. A similar thing is probably true of Nevada (now 25-30 percent Hispanic, and with a huge amount of internal US migration to Nevada’s Las Vegas metropolitan area in the past decade), which has actually voted for the winning US president in every single election since after 1976 (most of which have been Republicans), and could be about to vote Democrat for the third election in a row in 2016.
Many Democrats also think it may just be on the verge of happening in Arizona as well (now 30-35 percent Hispanic, and with lots of people from across the US moving to Phoenix), which voted Republican in every single presidential election but one since 1948. In 1964, in fact, Arizona was the only Republican-voting state in the country outside of “the South” – see map below. While Arizona did not vote for Obama in either of his elections, it may be that it would have voted for Obama in 2008 had his opponent not been Arizona’s own John McCain. Arizona and Nevada both produce almost no fossil fuels.
Immigration may also help the Democrats win the eastern states of North Carolina and Virginia, the 9th and 12th most populous US states, respectively, neither of which produce much fossil fuels. The populations of North Carolina and Virginia are both now around 10 percent Hispanic (in other words, far less than some states, but far more than many other states). The population of Raleigh, North Carolina has also been swelled by a very large amount of internal migration from across the country during the last decade, as has the population of the metropolitan area of the city of Washington. D.C., which extends into Virginia. In fact, the cities of Charlotte, North Carolina and Raleigh, North Carolina have had the US’s two fastest-growing Hispanic populations since 2000, and Washington D.C. was not far behind them. North Carolina had not voted Democrat since 1976 and Virginia not since 1964, but both voted for Obama in 2008 and Virginia voted for Obama in 2012 as well.
Even more importantly, many Democrats think these same trends are now working to help them secure some of the country’s largest states, most notably Florida. Florida has historically tended to vote for the Republicans more often than the Democrats, but voted for Obama twice (and may technically have voted for Gore over Bush in the contested 2000 election which saw a Florida recount, even when the governor of Florida at the time was Bush’s own brother Jeb). Florida’s population is now around 25 percent Hispanic, and in particular has seen a large amount of growth in its non-Cuban Latin American population and among younger Cuban generations. This demographic shift is probably significant, given that the original Cuban generation that has been prominent in Florida’s politics in recent decades tended to be relatively conservative politically, reflecting the fact that in many cases it was made up of middle-class and upper-class Cubans who had to leave Cuba following the Communist Castro takeover there. Florida too produces very little fossil fuels.
Illinois, which in recent decades has been a swing state that has tended to vote for the Democrats, has perhaps seen its Democratic base strengthen as well because of demographic changes. It is now more than 15 percent Hispanic. New Jersey, the 11th most populous US state, is a Democrat state that used to vote often Republican prior to Bill Clinton (and which the Republicans probably hope to retake, which may be a part of the reason why they have been considering choosing the current Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie as their candidate in 2016), and it now has a population that is approximately 20 percent Hispanic.
Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, the three largest conventional swing states in the US apart from Florida, have also had fast-growing Hispanic populations in the past decade or so, though their overall Hispanic populations remain only about 3.5 – 7.5 percent of their total populations. (Michigan also had fast-growing immigration from Iraq during the past decade). On the other hand, these states have also seen some outward internal US migration of young voters to other states.
Finally, even Georgia, a firmly Republican state which is the 8th most populous state in the country, could perhaps soon flip to the Democrats, the result of having a fast growing Hispanic population (the 10th fastest-growing of any state since 2000, which now accounts for more than 10 percent of the state’s total population), a large, long-established African-American population (roughly 20 percent of the state’s total population), and some young, potentially liberal families moving to Atlanta (which was one of the US’s fastest-growing metropolitan regions during the 2000s). Georgia also produces very little fossil fuels.
8) External US Geopolitics
During the Cold War, most Americans saw the Soviet Union as a very real potential threat to their security. The Soviet economy was dependent on producing energy and other commodities, which meant that any energy or commodity production within the United States would significantly hurt the Soviet position. Indeed, it was probably not a coincidence that the Soviet Union collapsed during a period of low energy prices. And it was not only the Soviets that were dependent on high commodity prices: until around the 1990s, the Communist Chinese were net exporters of energy and commodities as well.
Today the US is no longer in a Cold War. In fact, some of the nations in the world that seem potentially the most capable of challenging American power over the medium-term, such as China, Japan, Germany, or India, would all benefit from low energy and commodity prices far more than the US would — while, conversely, close US allies like Canada, Australia, Scandinavia, and even Britain are all significant energy or commodity producers, and so would actually be hurt by (or in Britain’s case, not benefit too much from) such lower prices.
As a result, the US has no real “strategic” geopolitical impetus to support rising domestic energy or commodity production in the way that it used to (though some Americans, particularly Republicans, have recently begun to support rising American oil production as a way to undermine the governments of countries like Russia and Iran). The collapse of the Communist Russian empire in 1990, therefore, combined with the transformation of Communist China from a net commodity and energy exporter to a gigantic commodity and energy importer, has perhaps been helping to cause more Americans (or at least, more Democrat politicians) to favour stronger domestic environmental protection.
9) Keystone XL and the Swinging Midwest
The defining feature of the American electoral system today is that, apart from Florida, every one of the largest US swing states are located in the Midwest (especially if you count Illinois as a swing state, as perhaps is appropriate to do). This may be a big part of the reason the incumbent Democratic party has embraced Pennsylvania’s enormous shale natural gas boom (see graph below), in spite of its potential environmental damage, partially under the guise of loving natural gas consumption as an alternative to dirtier coal consumption. (Shale gas has, for example, allowed the Midwest to retire many of its coal-fired power plants — see map below).
The electoral centrality of the Midwest may also be one reason the Democrats have refused to allow the Keystone XL pipeline to be constructed, because, by preventing Albertan heavy oil from reaching refineries on the US Gulf of Mexico coast by way of the Keystone pipeline, refineries in the Midwest were given a near-monopoly on Alberta’s oil exports, which really helped the refining industry (and to a lesser extent, people who drive a lot) in the Midwest. This is because the type of heavy oil produced in the Albertan tar sands deposits can only be refined at a certain refineries, of which there are very few outside of the Gulf of Mexico region or the Midwest. Indeed, after around 2009, Albertan oil in the Midwest (which tends to be measured by West Texas Intermediate or Western Canada Select prices – see graph below) began to cost significantly less than oil in most other places in America or the world (as measured by Brent Crude prices).
It might be a bit cynical or conspiratorial to suggest (though others, like the former chief economist of the major Canadian bank CIBC, Jeff Rubin, have come very close to suggesting it), but it does seem possible that the Democrats’ blocking of Keystone by invoking environmental concerns was, at least in part, a political ploy intended to help them secure their influence in the Midwestern swing state region, while at the same time having the added benefit of denying financial profits to the Republican states and businesses on the Gulf coast, depriving the Republican-friendly Albertans of an even larger amount of profits, and channelling environmentalist ire toward Albertan tar sands production instead of toward Midwestern activities supported or tolerated by the Democrats, such as shale energy production, coal production, auto-manufacturing, suburban sprawl, and certain types of environmentally-intrusive farming.
Because this dynamic only emerged in recent years, as a result of the rise of Canadian tar sands oil production and the shale oil boom in North Dakota (which had by far the largest oil production growth of any US state, and which competes with oil from neighbouring Alberta and Saskatchewan for pipelines, trains, etc.), it may have contributed to the recent rising politicization of environmental protection.
10) Midwestern De-industrialization and Southern Industrialization
In recent decades, the US manufacturing sector has become much smaller as a percentage of US GDP, and also much less labor-intensive. According to Business Insider magazine, the United States saw its manufacturing jobs decline by 32 percent during the 2000’s. Because many manufacturing industries are energy-intensive and resource-intensive, this means that there are fewer voters who have a very direct stake in environmentally damaging work. De-industrialization has also been something of a regional affair, occurring the most within Democrat or swing states in the Midwest/Great Lakes region, such as Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Among other things, these states produce cars and trucks (and components for cars and trucks), which, while still a very large cause of pollution in North America, have nevertheless become much more fuel-efficient than they used to be. Some Republican states in the South, in contrast, have actually been industrializing (and in particular, growing their auto-manufacuring) in recent years and decades.