In recent years, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva has seen his district in southern Arizona ravaged by wildfires, heat and drought. Dozens lost their lives and thousands were forced to evacuate their homes. Agricultural production has slowed and water supplies are shrinking.
Which is why Grijalva, a six-term Democrat, set out to make climate change a top priority.
He helped create the Southwest Climate Science Center at the University of Arizona and is part of the Safe Climate Caucus, a group of House members committed to raising the profile of global warming. In May, he organized a letter to Pres. Obama signed by 30 members of Congress urging the president to reject the Keystone XL pipeline because of climate concerns.
"I've lived in my part of Arizona my whole life," Grijalva, 65, said in an interview. "I've never seen conditions like the ones we've had the last few years. Watching my constituents deal with the effects of climate change—the droughts, the record temperatures, the fires—how could I not make it a priority?"
In the district next door to Grijalva's, however, the message being conveyed is far different.
That area, represented by Paul Gosar, a Republican, is experiencing similar climate extremes. But Gosar rejects the scientific consensus that carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuel and other human activities are causing the earth to warm. And he sees no connection between climate change and the extreme weather raging in his home district—including the Yarnell wildfire, which claimed the lives of 19 firefighters in June—according to his spokesman, Orlando Watson. Gosar has voted against all climate-related legislation in the past few years.
The stark partisan divide over global warming isn't unique to Arizona—it has become an entrenched part of Congressional politics. But the schism is becoming more visible as extreme weather events increase and claim more lives, and turn climate change into something tangible for communities.
Since 2011, there have been 368 national disaster declarations in the United States. Polls say a larger majority of Americans from both parties see the bursts of deadly weather as a sign of climate change.
But when faced with climate-related weather tragedies in their backyards, Congressional Republicans don't seem inclined to budge from their stance that the science of climate change isn't settled. Democratic leaders in the same situation, on the other hand, are often quick to assign blame to global warming and move climate action to the top of their political agendas.
"Democrats and Republicans are reacting very differently to these tragic events," said Barry Rabe, an expert on the politics of climate change at the University of Michigan and a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It is another example of the increasing partisan polarization of the issue.”
The Difference of a Few Years
Congress wasn't always so divided. In fact, Republicans once led the push for fossil fuel and carbon pollution regulations.
In 2003, Sen. John McCain of Arizona was a sponsor of the country's first major cap-and-trade bill. During his presidential bid in 2008, he warned about global warming and backed legislation to curb climate-changing emissions. In 2005, as governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney helped spearhead the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the nation's first carbon trading program. Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota and chair of the National Governor's Association from 2007-2008, frequently urged Congress to act on climate change.
"Whatever political stripe you are, you'll look back on these types of [climate] initiatives and say, 'thank goodness we did that,'" Pawlenty told reporters in 2006.
According to Rabe, Republican politicians often justified the need for regulations to slow global warming by pointing to the environmental and economic dangers of doing nothing.
But in recent years McCain, Romney and Pawlenty have all turned skeptical. These days, most GOP members of Congress either outright reject climate science or stay silent on the issue—even after climate-related weather disasters strike their districts.