Segment from Revisionist Climate

Political Climate

Nathan, Brian and Ed discuss how climate change went from scientific consensus to a partisan political issue in the U.S.

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ED: You know, think about what Nathan said about how in the late 60s, early 70s, the environment became a topic of major concern. Then it becomes overlaid with the energy crisis of the 70s. We can remember Jimmy Carter with his sweater in front of the fire. And from that perspective, it seems that the Democrats and environmentalism seemed pretty linked.

And yet thinking about this show, came across this quote from 1988 and George H. W. Bush, who says that the warming of the climate is not a partisan issue. It’s not liberal or conservative, is what he says.

GEORGE H. W. BUSH: Some say, these problems are too big. That it’s impossible for an individual, or even a nation as great as ours, to solve the problem of global warming, or the loss of forests, or the deterioration of our oceans. My response is simple, it can be done. And we must do it.

ED: So can you guys help me understand how it is that we go from the late ’80s, and in not being seen as partisan, to today when it seems hyper-partisan?

BRIAN: Well, I think one way we got there, Ed, is that as that scientific consensus formed that we needed to do something about climate change, things like the Kyoto international agreement, the first international agreement to begin to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide put out into the air, it’s precisely because of that consensus that those industries who earn their living by extracting oil, by extracting gas, they were at the forefront of funding research that would cast doubt on that very scientific consensus that we needed to do something. Otherwise the climate was going to continue to warm.

ED: Right.

NATHAN: I mean I think that certainly rings true. And if you look at one of the most consistent talking points on the environment, what do you hear about? The ways in which environmental regulations kill jobs. And that’s absolutely a way of dog whistling to working class people, largely white working class people, to get them to not sign on to really basic environmental protections.

If the idea is that by somehow advocating for green technology you’re going to decimate areas in West Virginia, or decimate you know, the Rust Belt, then people are not going to sign onto that. And lo and behold states will then turn in ways that make it very easy for people on the right to, basically, win elections. I mean Al Gore famously lost West Virginia in 2000, precisely because it was framed by the Bush campaign.

ED: The other Bush, Nathan.

NATHAN: Exactly, George W. Bush, that his approach to the environment was going to kill that state’s economy.

BRIAN: Right.

ED: Can we imagine this becoming reconfigured in some way that it’s not so locked into this partisan divide?

BRIAN: Well sadly, if the scientific consensus is correct about climate change, we are going to have more and more catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina, or Hurricane Sandy. So there will be plenty of opportunities to see if Americans can come together.

NATHAN: You know guys, it is a funny thing about the weather, in addition to it always changing, it actually obliterates American exceptionalism, right? I mean, there’s a way in which we will be suffering under the same kinds of global conditions that everyone else will be. And you would think that somewhere in a corner of American politics and culture, someone would try to hold on to that notion of American exceptionalism to solve the climate crisis, right? To say you know what–

BRIAN: We can be different.

NATHAN: We can be different. We rose to the top as the world’s number one polluter, we can find a way to rise to the top as the chief architect of the solution.


ED: As we thank the people who help us make the show every week, today we want to thank somebody who’s helped us make this show for years, Andrew Parsons, our senior producer.

NATHAN: So, Andrew, I want to thank you for making my first year in broadcasting both high quality and low stress. It was an honor working with you, and I’m sure you’re going to rock it in whatever you decide to do next.

JOANNE: Andrew, I have to say it’s been an absolute honor to work with you, and you know how much that means to me. I’m only sorry that I didn’t get to work with you for longer. But you made my introduction to podcasting not only easy, but fun. So thank you.

ED: And Andrew I’ve known you for a long time, since you first showed up here as a producer, and then as you took over the reins as our senior producer as you saw through the transition from terrestrial radio to podcasting. Every step along the way you made it look easy. Every step along the way you brought a great sense of humor. Every step along the way you brought fruit to the office that we enjoyed sharing, which actually improved my dietary habits. So for that and for so much more, Drew, thank you so much.


NATHAN: That’s going to do it for today but you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of today’s episode, or ask us your questions about American history. You’ll find us at Or send an email to We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter at BackStoryRadio. And if you liked the show feel free to review it in Apple Podcasts. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

BRIAN: This episode of BackStory was produced by Andrew Parsons, Brigid McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Emily Gattick, and Ramona Martinez. Jamal Milner is our technical director, Diana Williams who is our digital editor, and Joey Thompson is our researcher. Special thanks this week to Justin McBrien and Radio Ca’ Foscari at Co’ Foscari University of Venice.

ED: Additional help came from Courtney [? Spania, ?] Robin Blue, and Elizabeth [? Spage. ?]

BRIAN: Our theme song was written by Nick Thorburn. Other music in our show came from Podington Bear, Ketsa, [? Juzar. ?] And thanks to the Johns Hopkins University’s Studio in Baltimore.

ED: BackStory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. We’re a proud member of the Panoply Podcast Network. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Provost office at the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis foundations.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of history at the University of Virginia, and the Dorothy Compton professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is Professor of the humanities, and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond.

Joanne Freeman is Professor of history and American studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert [? Backster ?] Adams associate professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.