As US officials attend the United Nations climate change conference in Paris this week, polls show that a majority of Americans say climate change is a serious problem, but a deep partisan divide remains, potentially complicating US action on the issue.
Sixty-three percent of respondents indicated climate change is a serious problem facing the country, down from 69 percent in June, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
But only 47 percent say the federal government should do more to deal with global warming than it currently does, down from 61 percent in 2008.
On Monday, representatives from 195 countries and the European Union came to France for the conference, an effort to reach a binding agreement to address the warming of the planet. Many expect the conference to produce a global commitment.
And it's why President Obama has been pushing the issue at home in advance of the Paris summit.
“We have to do something about climate change,” Mr. Obama said at a meeting with business leaders last month. “Because not only is it going to have an impact on our children and our grandchildren, and we have a moral obligation to leave them a planet that is as wonderful as the one that we inherited from our forebears, but it’s really important for America’s bottom line and economic growth.”
But perhaps the biggest obstacle to climate change action in the US is the deep partisan divide on the issue.
Some 90 percent of Democrats say that global warming would have a serious effect on the earth, compared with 58 percent of Republicans, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
Other polls find a similar divide. More than eight in 10 Democrats say global warming is a serious problem, 65 percent want the federal government to do more about it, and 57 percent believe most scientists agree on whether global warming is happening, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll.
Among Republicans, nearly 6 in 10 say it is not a serious problem, fewer than one-quarter support increased government action, and two-thirds think there is “a lot of disagreement” among scientists.
"Everything has gotten so partisan. In many ways, climate change now has become one of those signature issues – like what taxes has been for Republicans for years," former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican who served as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency during President George W. Bush's first term, told CBS News. "The truth, of course, is somewhere in between ... It's all in the nuances, which makes it so easy to demonize."
The danger, of course, is that the issue has become so divisive that politicians and the public retreat to established partisan positions on climate change, and gridlock ensues.
"I don't want to see the various presidential candidates get pushed into positions that they can't come back from," Ms. Whitman added. "You will find yourselves at the end of the day where we just can't move forward and that is not where we want to be."
Unfortunately, a raft of evidence – from studies to political rhetoric to media responses – suggest that is where we have ended up.
Over the decade between 2001 and 2010, liberals grew more likely to say climate change has already begun, while conservatives grew more likely to say the opposite, according to a 2011 paper from Aaron M. McCright of Michigan State University and Riley E. Dunlap of Oklahoma State University that analyzed data from 10 national Gallup Polls between 2001 and 2010.
"Such polarization likely has continued in recent years given the heightened balkanization of news media (e.g., MSNBC on the Left and FOX News on the Right), allowing Americans to obtain their news from outlets that reinforce their political beliefs," the study's authors added.
In other words, each party has retreated further to its respective side, with some mocking the "other."
"While the world is in turmoil and falling apart in so many different ways especially with ISIS, our President is worried about global warming – what a ridiculous situation," GOP frontrunner Donald Trump said in a video post on Instagram.
Nonetheless, while conservatives and liberals may never agree on the issue, there is evidence that public opinion may begin to coalesce.
The CBS News/New York Times poll found that the number of Americans who believe global warming is caused by human activity has risen 11 points since 2011. And while they don't agree on taxing consumers, Americans generally favor regulating business activity and capping power plant emissions to reduce carbon emissions.
“If you just look over the past five or six years since Copenhagen, there’s been a shift,” David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute, told The New York Times. “There’s much more awareness of issues like sea level rise, water scarcity, and climate instability.”