Written By: Dylan Ruan, Living Lab Intern, UCSB Sustainability

Partisanship, gridlock, and a lack of compromise in Congress has a lack of legislative solutions to environmental problems. The last big push for environmental reform occurred in the 70’s into the early 80’s before polarization effectively forced these policy movements to come to a halt.

Gridlock is a political stalemate when laws are not passed due to conflicting agendas and ideology between the heads of government. Right now, the executive branch–President Obama – is butting heads with the Congress whose majority is controlled by the Republican parties.

Sarah Anderson, professor of political science at UCSB, notes that gridlock can be catalyzed by the fervor created when moral language is used in politics. Moral language is found in “culture war issues” or debates that pit conflicting views about health, the economy, morality, and ethics against each other.

Anderson found that individuals who see the environment as one of these moral issues were more likely to mobilize themselves to make change. In this sense, moralization of the politics seems productive.

Unfortunately, this might not always be the case.

“There tends to be more polarization. You and I now think we’re farther apart than we did before the moralization of the issue. There’s also less willingness to accept compromise,” Anderson said. “So moral language becomes this very tempting tool because it mobilizes, but it also might actually undermine your capacity to actually get policy change because of this perception of polarization and lack of willingness to compromise.”

Recognizing ideology and its role in politics is essential to understand how people react to environmental issues and whether or not they will seek solutions. Sarah is a part of a group that is building the Center for Social Solutions to Environmental Problems (CSSEP), whose goal is to understand what leads to citizen demand for environmental action and what government structures can facilitate solutions to environmental problems.

The goal of this group is look at the psychological barriers as to why people might not engage in environmental action and how organizations can fix that. It is also looking to research and advance real on-the-ground solutions such as improving transparency and monitoring in government to improve environmental outcomes.

The group integrates the expertise of political scientists, economists, psychologists, and communication scholars to address these fundamental research questions and discover opportunities to solve pressing environmental problems from global climate change to local water scarcity.