Depolarizing Climate Change Policy

Matthew Burgess in the Moot Courtroom delivering his lecture

Overcoming political polarization will be necessary to enact meaningful policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the risk of climate change. This was the message the University of Colorado’s Professor Matthew Burgess presented in his lecture “Depolarizing Climate Change in the United States” on Oct. 4 at the law school. The lecture was part of the university’s Climate Action Week and was sponsored by the Coleman P. Burke Center for Environmental Law.

Burgess explained how political polarization has been increasing in the United States and is driven by the views of political and economic elites. This polarization affects views of climate change and the need for action to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations. At the same time, Burgess noted, there are signs of a growing bipartisan consensus on the need to address climate change, including the enactment of a range of bipartisan climate measures that have been adopted at the state level in recent years, many of which offer incentives for the adoption of renewable energy or emission reductions. Drawing on his own empirical research, analyses of opinion polls, survey experiments, and legislative action, Burgess argued that successful climate policies will emphasize carrots over sticks, optimism over pessimism, national pride over national shame, precise and plain-spoken discourse over hyperbole and histrionics and kitchen-table-focused approaches to environmental justice rather than identitarian ones.

Burgess is Assistant Professor in Environmental Studies and a fellow at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, where his research focuses on economic growth futures and their impacts on the environment and society, mathematical modeling of human-environment systems and political polarization of environmental issues.

Director of the Coleman P. Burke Center for Environmental Law Jonathan H. Adler introduced the event with a brief discussion of how political polarization surrounding climate change affects the practice of environmental law. Video of the event is available.