The Conundrum Expanded: New perspectives on Climate Politics in the US Congress

By Dana R. Fisher and Joseph Waggle

November 2012 was a fantastic time to be a progressive American. On 6 November, the citizens of the United States of America voted in favor of marriage equality for same-sex couples in four separate states, they legalized marijuana in two more, and elected a record number of female representatives into office (including openly lesbian Tammy Baldwin and openly bisexual Kyrsten Sinema). Perhaps the greatest and most visible victory for progressive politics in November was Barack Obama’s win over Mitt Romney to become a second-term President of the United States. In the face of this forward momentum, one can’t help but wonder how this progress may translate to the environment. Specifically, do these changes portend that the US will have the ability finally to pass federal climate change legislation and that might result in a shift in the US position in the climate negotiations? 

We were excited to read the work of Bang and colleagues (see “US Presidents and the ratification conundrum”from this blog, dated 6 November 2012). In their piece, Bang, Hovi, and Sprinz interrogate the circumstances that have led to a recent trend of US presidents signing environmental treaties that are not ratified by the Congress. According to Bang and colleagues, there are two complementary explanations for why this trend has emerged in US politics. First, the political system in the US is such that the President may not always be able to predict the will of the Congress, and may not be able to judge accurately the likelihood of ratification. But this explanation does not address situations in which presidents have signed treaties without sending them to the Senate for ratification. In their second explanation, Bang and colleagues argue that US presidents may see a benefit to supporting environmental efforts, especially among key constituencies of voters for whom environmental concerns are important, even if they are well aware that the treaty is not ratifiable in the Senate.

In this comment, we want to focus on another facet of climate politics in the United States: domestic policymaking by the US Congress. The public debate is often framed as a discussion of the validity of the science of climate change; so-called “climate deniers” who assert that climate change is either not occurring or is not dangerous, and who may also assert that human activity has little to no impact on the natural environment. For this reason, we felt the need to examine the debate among the power elite in the United States, including Congresspeople and the experts they call upon to testify on environmental matters. In our two recent publications, we show how consensus has formed around the climate issue and what sparks political polarization within the US Congress.Both of these publications present data analyzed from Congressional Hearings and were made possible by an innovation in social network analysis, which allows us to map out the relations among political positions as well as the ideological stance of a speaker.

In the first piece, which was recently published in Climatic Change, Fisher, Leifeld, and Iwaki track consensus around climate policy in Congressional hearings to illustrate that ideological networks showed an increased consensus between the 109th and 110thsessions of the US Congress (January 2005-2009—during the second term of President George W. Bush). Fisher, Waggle, and Leifeld use the same type of analysis to show what drives the political polarization around the issue of climate change in the US Congress. In particular, we find that the debate around climate change is not driven by challenges to the science; rather it is centered entirely on the economic impacts of proposed legislation, including the costs of implementing policy and the potential impacts to existing industries that would be forced to comply. In Congressional testimonies from the 109th and 110thsessions of the Congress, there was tremendous consensus around the science of climate change and vigorous debate about the economic impacts of climate change policy, even as the majority in theHouse of Representatives changed from Republicans to Democrats.

Taken together, these articles add significantly to our understanding of how the US Congress works and why there continues to be no federal climate change legislation. Based on these findings, we would stress the need to look to the Congress to understand what will happen in the US as well as in the climate change negotiations currently taking place in Doha. Lack of ratification may not be a question of unpredictable Congressional will, as Bang and colleagues suggest, but rather the strategic opposition of key Congressional actors in the face of consensus, as well as the tendency for consensus to shift as party control of Congress shifts. Recent events support this explanation.Since our research was conducted, there have been two influential sessions of the Congress under a democratic President: the 111th, where a climate bill successfully passed through the House of Representatives (for the first time ever); and the 112th which was the product of a Republican Revolution motivated by the Tea Party movement.
With President Obama back in the White House for another four years, it is imperative to look to the Congress for answers.A first step in getting these answers is expanding this research to see how the more recent sessions are similar to and different from those that we analyze in these articles.

In the meantime, these two new articles illustrate that the “ratification conundrum” examined by Bang and colleagues extends beyond the relationship between the Oval Office and Capitol Hill. It is a question that involves a diversity of actors debating multiple facets of the issue at many different levels of governance. And the debate and consensus around the issue is constantly shifting. In this context, it truly is difficult to say whether future efforts to ratify a climate treaty—or to pass climate legislation that would serve as implementing legislation for such a treaty—will succeed or fail, and what will explain those successes and failures. It is indeed an interesting time to be a progressive in the United States. It is even more interesting, we think, to be studying climate politics in the United States today.

About the authors

Dana R. Fisher ( is the Director of the Program for Society and the Environment and an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland. 

Joseph Waggle ( a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Maryland.


Fisher, Dana R, Philip Leifeld, and Yoko Iwaki. 2012. “Mapping the Ideological Networks of
American Climate Politics.” Climatic Change.

Fisher, Dana R, Joseph Waggle, and Philip Leifeld. 2012. “Where Does Political Polarization Come
From? Locating Polarization Within the US Climate Change Debate.” American Behavioral Scientist.



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