In state legislatures, the partisan divide on environmental policy is deepening

By Will Jarrett

As a Republican with a superb environmental record, Senator Kip Bateman is a member of an increasingly endangered species.

Bateman has consistently voted in defense of the environment during his thirteen years in the New Jersey State Senate. One of his proudest achievements in office was passing a bill that funnelled corporation tax into preserving wild spaces. The Sierra Club has endorsed him in every election, and the League of Conservation Voters has ranked him the state's greenest Republican for several years running.

But his advocacy on green issues has often led to friction with members of his own party. Bateman has decided that he will hang up his spurs in January 2022, and he is concerned that nowadays it is harder than ever for eco-conscious conservatives to find a place on his side of the aisle.

“Several of my good moderate friends have retired or decided not to run again,” said Bateman. “It is frustrating because the environment should not be partisan.”

Bateman's concerns are well founded. According to analysis of data released this week by Climate Cabinet Action, partisanship over environmental issues is deepening across the country. Even as Democrats are improving their green voting records, many Republican state legislators are headed in the other direction.

Climate Cabinet Action produced their data by collecting the votes of thousands of state legislators across 25 states from 2015 onwards, giving each politician a score out of 100. Every pro-environment vote boosts their score and every anti-environment vote lowers it (with double-weighting given to every vote specifically related to the climate). By comparing the scores of politicians who have recently left office with the scores of incumbents, we can get a sense of how voting patterns are changing.

These are the voting scores of state politicians who left office from 2015 onward.

On average, Democrats who left office in the last six years had a score of 85, meaning they voted pro-environment about 85% of the time.

The average score of Republicans who left office in the last six years was 32.

Let's compare those scores with current politicians. Keep an eye on the scores in the middle of the chart.

Fewer current politicians have moderate scores. More than half have scores that are either higher than 90 or lower than 10.

And votes are now being conducted more strictly along party lines.

The average score for state Democrats has improved, going up 6 points to 91.

The average score for state Republicans has worsened, going down 5 points to 27.

Even as climate change becomes more and more urgent, the two main parties are drifting further apart on environmental votes.

“It has become firmly, intensively partisan,” said Barry Rabe, an expert on environmental policy from the University of Michigan. “Some of the same patterns that we have been looking at for a couple of decades now at the federal level are increasingly manifest in many, if not all, states.”

It was not always like this. Rabe sees the mid-to-late-2000s as a turning point for partisanship in state environmental policy.

He believes that one major reason for this shift was the expansion of fracking. Before fracking became viable around 2005, weaning the USA off oil and gas was often framed as a national security issue – more renewables meant less reliance on imports from foreign powers like Saudi Arabia and Russia. States not usually considered progressive were powering ahead with alternative energy. Under Governor George W. Bush, for instance, Texas came to lead the country in wind generation.

But new fracking technology reversed this equation. The USA could suddenly produce vast quantities of fossil fuels, and an emphasis on gas and oil meant “energy independence.” It also spelled huge, easy payouts for Republican-controlled states like Texas, which had large natural fossil fuel reserves.

Belief in climate change cratered soon afterwards. Between Fall 2008 and Spring 2010, the number of Americans who thought there was solid evidence of a warming climate fell from 72% to 52%, a “staggering drop” unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Today, belief is back at roughly 2008 levels, but the sudden loss of conviction in the early 2010s is striking nonetheless. What caused this change is debated, but Rabe believes that the shifting economic incentives for fossil fuels were a major factor.

Rabe points out that several significant legislative efforts to combat climate change also lost their steam around this time. Carbon cap-and-trade schemes, which aim to provide economic incentives for reducing CO2 emissions, had been a bipartisan effort. But they became anathema to Republican states in the space of a few short years.

“Between 2010 and 2018, not only did no states add on to cap-and-trade, but many of the states abandoned their earlier commitments,” said Rabe. “The entire Midwestern cap-and-trade effort has disappeared. California lost all of its American partners.” The Northeastern cap-and-trade agreement has continued, he said, but “all of these are exclusively or predominantly Democratic states.”

It is important to note that this widening chasm on environmental issues coincided with increasing partisanship on a whole number of issues, such as immigration and healthcare. Republicans’ renewed enthusiasm for fossil fuels may well have had economic underpinnings, but environmentalism also became one more battleground in which they could prove their difference from the Democrats.

The data from Climate Cabinet Action suggests that this trend towards state partisanship has continued to deepen throughout the past five years. Climate scepticism crept into the mainstream a decade ago with anti-Obama movements like the Tea Party, but seems to have flourished as official Republican doctrine under Trump.

Despite this fraught national picture, not all states are equally polarized. Some have managed to continue passing bipartisan environmental legislation even throughout the last few years. In some states, like Connecticut, South Carolina, and Georgia, the gap between Republican and Democrat votes is smaller than one might imagine.

South Carolina has one of the smallest gaps between Republican and Democrat green voting records. Rebecca Haynes, Deputy Director of the non-profit Conservation Voters of South Carolina, attributes the success of bipartisan bills in the state to hard work, effective communication between parties, and the framing of issues in ways palatable to both sides.

“There are words that have too much baggage with them, and they will shut people down,” said Haynes. Instead of immediately talking about “climate change,” she said, her group would emphasise the aspects of environmental bills that appeal to both Democrats and Republicans – job creation, conservation, and market competition.

This strategy has led to a number of successes, such as the closure of coal plants in South Carolina and the passing of the Energy Freedom Act, which will lead to increased investment in solar power.

Even so, Haynes has noticed increased polarization in South Carolina as well, and works constantly to overcome it.

“I think we're more partisan right now than we have been in a long time,” said Haynes. “There's been a loss of moderate Dems and a loss of moderate Republicans. I've just seen everybody staking their stuff out even further, you know?”

With climate disasters hitting Americans everywhere more and more frequently, it remains to be seen whether this trend will continue. For Senator Bateman and legislators like him, the ramifications of continued polarization are deeply troubling.

“The earth is definitely getting warmer,” he said. “I may be okay in my lifetime, but I worry about my grandson. I worry about the kind of world he is going to have.”


The climate scores of each legislator were calculated by dividing the number of pro-environmental votes by the total number of environmental votes, with climate-specific votes given a double weighting. You can find out more at Climate Cabinet Action. Legislators who do not yet have climate scores are shown on the right-hand side of the graph above and were excluded from other analyses.

Emma Fisher, Head of Strategy at Climate Cabinet Action, notes that scores should not be taken as the definitive expression of any given legislator's environmental advocacy. They are generated using key votes alone, and therefore may miss both positive and negative impacts outside of state congress.

The 25 states included in this initial data release were chosen primarily because of the existence of local advocacy groups that had already started the process of tracking votes. Ultimately, Climate Cabinet Action hopes to maintain data on all 50 states.

Finally, Fisher also noted that it is inadvisable to directly compare scores between states: “I would caution against drawing conclusions across state lines, because every state is voting on very different types of legislation and is considering climate legislation of varying strength.” The scores are more helpful for observing general trends and making comparisons within states.

To explore the scores in more detail, visit State environmental scores.

Header photo credit Guy Bowden