Climate Change, Congress, and Rational Choice


As it is understood today, climate change, which is a long-term change in the Earth’s climate due to an increase in atmospheric temperature, is less of a natural process than it is a direct repercussion of human activity. Recent studies have shown that over ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities (Anderegg et al. 2010). This rapidly occurring phenomenon due to the ill effects of human actions is directly responsible for causing harmful outcomes to the environment, which include but are not limited to global warming, the greenhouse effect, and the melting of polar regions (“10 Current Environmental Issues – Conserve Energy Future” n.d.).

With strong scientific support identifying mankind as the cause of climate change, it would be seemingly difficult for anyone to denounce such a claim. The Republican Party, however, has refused to accept this evidence for years, in turn declining to acknowledge the existence of climate control in order to preserve party ideology and to prevent new laws or regulations that would interfere with the free market (“Republicans Evolve on Climate Change” 2015).

Despite decades of debate, the controversy over climate change seems to be reaching a time of transition and compromise. On January 21, 2015 the U.S. Senate passed an amendment to the Keystone XL pipeline bill sponsored by Republican Senator John Hoeven that declared, “Climate change is real; and human activity contributes to climate change” (Elving n.d.). This amendment managed to clear the 60-vote threshold because of a combination of significant Democratic support and fifteen Republican senators who were willing to endorse that mankind has a role in climate change (Elving n.d.). While these amendments represent the transformation of the debate over climate change, it is unclear where the motive for the Republican Party to soften their position on such an important environmental issue stems from. The origins of the Republican Party’s softening stance on climate control can be examined by applying rational choice theory.

Rational choice theory emphasizes the role of individuals as rational actors seeking to maximize their personal utility. Consider the Republican Party as an “individual” in the political sphere. Rational choice theory asserts then that the Republican Party will make decisions in order to maximize their personal utility, and that, for any political party, utility is equivalent to power in the form of governmental control.

In the wake of the 2012 Presidential election, the Republican Party faced a bleak future; Mitt Romney and the Republicans lost the election and were subsequently identified as being disconnected from the growing, diverse population of the Untied States. Therefore, many supporters decided that in order for the Republican Party to obtain increased public support and regain political power, it must present new leadership that would embrace the country’s reality (“The Republican Party’s Future: Evolve or Die” n.d.). Such critiques emphasize the fact that the Republican Party, after the most recent presidential election, risked losing any form of control in the national government in the foreseeable future.

Rational choice theory states that the Republicans, in order to increase their power and utility, must make decisions to neutralize the elements limiting their power – in other words, some of their most polarizing political views. Therefore, the Republican shift and willingness to accept that climate control is real represents a fundamental, if minor, shift in ideology that can be documented with concrete legislation. This decision can be explained by rational choice theory because it demonstrates that the Republicans are making a decision that will allow them to appear more reasonable. The fact that Republicans decided to accept climate change may represent not only their desire to change, but also the first of many moves to shed the notion that the party is disconnected from the current society in order to gain back political control.

Climate change is a significant environmental concern and only when the government of the United States reached a majority opinion on the issue could legislation to address the problem be crafted. Therefore, the current vote to admit that climate change is real represented a significant step in addressing this environmental issue. However, upon further inspection and analysis using rational choice theory, the recent vote seems to be more than just an honest step forward to limiting climate change; the passing of the amendments suggests that the Republican Party is using the topic of climate change to demonstrate a transformation in their party and connect to society solely to increase their personal utility, which comes in the form of political power and control.



Works Cited


“10 Current Environmental Issues – Conserve Energy Future.” Conserve-Energy-Future. (January 29, 2015).


Anderegg, W. R. L., J. W. Prall, J. Harold, and S. H. Schneider. 2010. “Expert Credibility in Climate Change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(27): 12107–9.

Elving, Ron. “Senate Says Climate Change Real, But Not Really Our Fault.” (January 29, 2015).

“Republicans Evolve on Climate Change.” 2015. BloombergView. (January 29, 2015).

“The Republican Party's Future: Evolve or Die.” (January 29, 2015).

About Ed Isola

I am a Mathematics and Computer Science and Political Science double major at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina. Outside of writing, I enjoy wrestling and playing music.

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