09/25/2014 06:03 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2014

Is Common Ground Possible Anymore on Global Climate Change?

If you enjoy good writing, solid thinking and interesting perspectives on issues such as global warming, you're probably a fan of David Roberts on Grist.

Recently back from a yearlong hiatus in which he rediscovered life outside the blogosphere, Roberts has resumed his provocative and often pensive postings. One of the latest is titled, Polarization in America is here to stay. "Polarization is now, and is likely to be for the foreseeable future, a fact of American life," Roberts writes. He calls political gridlock "the new default."

Not everyone agrees, of course, and Roberts provides links to both sides of the polarization question. One link leads to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which concludes from its polling that "Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines - and partisan acrimony is deeper and more extensive - than at any point in recent history."

So, are some of us naïve to hope that bipartisan collaboration is still possible on the more important issues facing the country? Are we doomed indefinitely to a politics of acrimonious extremes, where rigid ideologies keep trumping the national interest?

Roberts and I both spend a lot of electrons on two of the issues on which deadlock seems especially intractable: the need to confront global climate change and to shift away from fossil fuels. I am not ready to concede that it's impossible to find common ground on these issues. A different body of evidence suggests that the ideological divide on confronting global warming - which by necessity includes a major shift to a clean energy economy -- may not be as wide as we think, not outside the Beltway anyway. If there is an unbridgeable divide on these issues, it is not between Democrats and Republicans, but between the farthest of the Far Right and everyone else.

The Pew Research Center concludes that people on the Right are moving farther right, and people on the Left are moving farther left. Gallup reported last January, however, that a record-high number of Americans -- 42% -- identify themselves not as Republicans or Democrats, but as Independents. It is the highest number of Independents Gallup has found in its 25 years of telephone surveys.

The Democrat and Republican Parties both lost members in this shift, but Republicans lost more. Gallup's polls, conducted last year, found that only 25% of Americans call themselves Republicans these days, while only 31% identify themselves as Democrats.

This shift does not necessarily mean that voters are moving to the middle. Far-left and far-right voters may be among those leaving the two parties. But Gallup finds that ideology is not why voters are defecting.

"The rise in political independence is likely an outgrowth of Americans' record or near-record negative views of the two major U.S. parties, of Congress, and their low level of trust in government more generally," Gallup reports. "With Americans increasingly eschewing party labels for themselves, candidates who are less closely aligned to their party or its prevailing doctrine may benefit."

Second, while the nation is split on a variety of issues, climate change and clean energy apparently are not among them. The American Climate Values Survey in March found that 58% of its respondents agreed with this statement: "The potential consequences of climate change are so serious that we ought to do something even if we are not sure it's happening."

Many other recent polls have found similar sentiments. Last spring, a poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications and George Mason University found that:

• Two in three registered voters think global warming is happening. They include 88% of Democrats, 59% of Independents and 61% of liberal and moderate Republicans. Even on the Far Right 28% agreed.

• Democrats, liberal and moderate Republicans, and Independents are two times more likely to vote for a congressional or presidential candidate who strongly supports climate action. They are three times more likely to vote against a candidate who opposes action.

• 66% of Americans across political parties want Congress and the President to pass laws reducing the nation's dependence on fossil fuels by increasing energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy.

• 64% of Americans support strict limits on carbon emissions from existing power plants; 62% say the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other nations do.

I am somewhat skeptical of public opinion polls and how they are reported. One popular format, for example, is to ask people to rank the importance of climate change against other issues such as the economy, jobs and public health, as though climate change is not connected to public health and its impacts have no economic consequences. Forced to make a false choice, most respondents choose the economy and jobs. Yet surveys that focus only on climate change consistently find broad bipartisan support for action and for reducing our use of carbon fuels.

In other cases, pollsters highlight controversy rather than consensus in their findings, giving the impression that America is much more divided than it actually is. Last April, for example, Gallup put this headline on one of its polls: "One in four in U.S. Are Solidly Skeptical of Global Warming". The more significant result, it would seem, was that three of four Americans are not skeptical.

The best way to gain insights from polls, even when their methodology is sound, is to consider the preponderance of evidence - in other words, whether there are consistencies among many polls rather than relying on one. Earlier this month, researchers from the MIT Energy Initiative and the Harvard University Center on the Environment reported the results of what they called "the most comprehensive and prolonged assessment of American public opinion about energy".

"Contrary to what you might think from the political debate," they reported, "Americans don't really divide along partisan lines when it comes to their energy preferences...People want a starkly different energy portfolio than what we have today...When it comes to why people favor certain kinds of energy, the factors that matter most are the perceptions of the environmental harm and economic cost. Factors such as partisanship and region, we found, matter far less."

Americans may appear to be polarized on issues like these because people on the extremes tend to be more militant, more politically active, more vocal and more inclined to contribute money to campaigns. As Pew puts it, "Those who hold consistently liberal or conservative views, and who hold strongly negative views of the other political party, are far more likely to participate in the political process than the rest of the nation."

Gridlocked politics would likely change if the big, largely silent majority for clean energy and climate action became more active in expressing its "strongly negative views" of those who block progress. This week's climate marches were a welcome example of the climate-action majority becoming more visible. But the political dynamics in Washington will change only when members of Congress know that obstructing the transition to a clean energy economy is the surest way to lose the next election.

Finally, we should not discount the fact that sooner or later, climate change is likely to unify the American people rather than split them. People of diverse backgrounds and views tend to join forces when they face a common threat. It is becoming more and more obvious, often tragically, that climate change is a real and present danger to our health and safety as well as our economy. Climate impacts can no longer be ignored if you are a hunter and angler in an area where fish and wildlife are disappearing, or a maple sugar producer watching the sugaring seasons change, or a drought-stricken farmer, or a smoke jumper, or the displaced family of a flooded or burned out neighborhood.

The danger in conceding that political gridlock is here to stay is that the concession is a form of acceptance, and we simply cannot accept inaction against a threat as serious and irreversible as global warming. Some contemporary issues may indeed defy bipartisan solutions, but evidence suggests that climate action and a clean energy revolution need not be among them.