Conservatives and Climate Change… Here’s How We’ll Do It.
To survive climate change, we must find commonality with its skeptics, specifically, conservatives.
The climate movement is a brand that tailors to a very particular demographic. It’s peddling consumer content targeted at liberal audiences, and in doing so, it has left out massive swaths of would-be supporters.
The climate movement’s branding is shooting itself in the foot.
Branding climate change accessorizes a global emergency. Brands are no longer ancillary supports of identity; they form the bedrock of who we are. Millennials in particular are relying on brands to “reduce discrepancies between their actual and ideal self.” Branding makes it easier to reify internal values, build connections, and bolster self-esteem.
The climate crisis is branded to reach similar ends. People wear the climate brand as a point of pride and identity, just like their favorite clothes or accessories. The climate brand attracts “smart” and “compassionate” followers and provides content for their consumption designed to reinforce their worldviews and self-identity.
In traditional branding, if someone doesn’t like a particular brand, they go for one that resonates. The brand of climate denial certainly has its share of Guccis and Nikes pumping out content, too. If you choose Puma and hate on Nike, no big deal. But the brand game is no place for a global emergency: If enough people decide to boycott the climate crisis, we lose enough momentum to, quite frankly, destroy the earth.
By buying into classical branding, the climate activism community is playing a part in destroying the world it claims to be protecting.
The climate smokescreen
We need to depose climate science from branding that obfuscates the real issue.
And the issue is we have many value systems, one world, and plenty of room to engage climate activism without buying into reductionist left/right wish lists associated with climate action.
Climate change needs a great un-branding. To do that, it must reach across the aisle to those it’s denigrating, specifically conservatives.
82% of farmers sit somewhere right of the liberal spectrum (70% Republican, 12% independent). Many of them are the first to dismiss climate change zeitgeist. But in the same breath, they’ll tell you something else: Things aren’t quite right in the nation’s agronomy. They remember colder winters, fewer extreme weather events. Within their lifetime, rural conservatives have witnessed changing growing seasons, new diseases, and pests. They’ve seen fields become too wet to plant, and others become too dry to yield crops.
But at the first whiff of the climate brand, conservatives run for the hills. We’re not losing “out-of-touch” hicks who are part of the problem: We’re losing a treasure trove of first-hand knowledge, experience, and stories. We’re missing out on a critical segment of the population who, as farmers and sportsmen/women, are among the first to experience climate change, and are well-suited to address it to save their lifestyles.
We’re losing resources, networks, money, and votes.
Unlike many in the climate space, rural conservatives are experiencing climate change first-hand. Yet they are alienated precisely because of the branding. It goes something like this: If you’re a conservative, we don’t carry your size here. Go to that low-end GAP down the road.
Conservatives inherently mistrust centralized authority, and much of the climate brand is about as centralized as it gets. If conservative farmers buy into the climate brand, they’re signing up for massive international treaties enforced by centralized governments, regulations and taxes, and the whole kit and caboodle of left-leaning agendas. Even if conservatives accept climate change as real, they won’t engage the issue because they’re being told acquiescing to climate change means ditching their identity.
And they aren’t wrong. The options for addressing climate change while keeping conservative values are few and far between.
When conservatives hear “climate change,” they don’t consider erosion and infertility, unpredictable growing seasons, and the forests they grew up hunting in dying off from disease. They think of lost liberty. And it terrifies them.
To reduce a global emergency to a brand is absurd. We should be prospecting common ground respectful of our shared space, our unique values and cultures, and context. We all have a stake in this game of saving the world, and the climate brand needs to alter its marketing strategy radically.
Re-framing the discussion
“Too many people who believe in climate change have been extremely zealous, and extremely arrogant in their presentation of the science.”
That’s Dr. Andrew Hoffman, professor of sustainability at the University of Michigan.
The data alone isn’t enough to sway hearts and minds, Hoffman says. Relying on science as the sole means for making fundamental life changes takes the mystery out of the world. Somehow, the quantitative and qualitative need to learn how to dance.
Climate consciousness results from a cocktail of the intrinsic and extrinsic, qualitative and quantitative. People become genuinely convicted to address climate change within the crucible of their value systems and communities, not via a top-down approach. People take ownership when a movement starts from within their ranks. Disaffected communities must be empowered to consider what climate change means to them and be granted the space and tools to craft local responses and consciousness.
We need these communities to feel confident that tackling the climate crisis doesn’t have to come at the expense of their cherished values and lifestyles.
To a conservative, “climate change” is roughly translated as “government takeover” and “there go my liberties.” If we can pull those fears from the discussion, perhaps conservatives will feel safe enough to consider that climate change is real and must be engaged.
Many farmers Hoffman talks to admit climate change is hitting home in their fields and communities. But for the Midwestern U.S. farmer, the conversation tends to go differently.
“They say, ‘I’m not ready to call it climate change, that’s that liberal thing. But something weird is going on here, and I’ve not seen it before,’” Hoffman says.
This is a pivotal point in engaging conservatives in the climate discussion.
The messenger = the message
A 2018 Gallup poll discovered 35% of Americans identify as conservative, whereas 26% identify as liberals. But alarming changes in the weather are starting to cause a buzz in conservative circles.
“Public opinion polls show that more and more people are believing in climate change and becoming concerned about it and that moderate republicans in particular are starting to move on the issue,” says Hoffman. “And if you ask them why, they say ‘Because of the weird weather we’re having.’”
A 2020 Yale study found that nearly three-quarters of Americans believe global warming is happening. 62% believe it is human-caused. Americans are also feeling the heat at home, with 44% saying they’re seeing the effects of climate change in their communities.
But there’s still 33% of the population that’s “not too” or “not at all” personally interested in climate change. That corresponds almost precisely to the number of Americans who consider themselves conservative. That’s a massive untapped reservoir of people poised to take on the climate crisis.
How might that happen, you ask?
73% of Americans believe climate change is real, 10% believe it isn’t. That leaves a 17% margin of undecided people, perhaps many of them within conservative communities. They’re the undecided skeptics perfectly suited to become what Hoffman calls “climate brokers.”
Climate brokers serve as local bridges between disaffected conservatives and the climate discussion.
“I want farmers in the Midwest to hear it [climate change] from the farmer down the road. I want them to hear it in the Kiwanis Club. I want them to hear it from people they trust.”
As Hoffman says, the messenger is just as important as the message. A farmer in line at the grain elevator is more likely to trust the word of the climate-conscious farmer in the passenger seat than a scientist from Ann Arbor.
But does a climate broker have to believe wholesale in climate change? Does the good ‘ole boy speaking to his neighbor about a warming planet need to be a card-carrying secret member of the climate Illuminati?
“I’m not so sure they do,” Hoffman says. “If you think about the cultural change as being a collective phenomenon, one person [individually] doesn’t have to have a story down pat. But the collective can.”
Picture a church potluck filled with farmers chatting about the past season’s harvest. Someone mentions the strange growing seasons over the past decade. The rest raise an eyebrow, then slowly agree something is up. That’s a win. The more conversations like this, the closer an ambivalent or denying community gets to accepting reality.
“Does it matter if they call it climate change?” asks Hoffman. “I’m not so sure. Do they recognize that their environment is changing, and it’s affecting their economics? That’s important.”
Tie a cause and effect to the bottom line, and you have a powerful motivator for change. If further regulations and government intervention won’t garner attention, economics will. What’s more, if we can establish a corollary with a threat to lifestyle and values, you’ve got a one-two punch capable of spurring organic action in conservatives.
And considering 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions result from farming, rural conservatives are prime candidates for implementing agricultural practices that promise to reduce carbon emissions and even become net carbon sinks to help reverse climate change.
“People are speaking up, and that’s how social change happens: It happens locally.”
Hoffman sees climate denial in four stages:
- “It’s not happening at all.”
- “It’s happening, but it’s good (more CO2 makes plants grow, right?).”
- “It’s happening, and it’s not all rosy, but people don’t cause it.”
- “It’s happening, it’s terrible, and people are causing it, but these policy proposals like the Green New Deal are absurd.”
Honestly, this last point is good news. The GND isn’t becoming the 28th Amendment anytime soon, precisely because of a one-dimensional view of climate politics. We desperately need political diversity in a climate discussion that’s overwhelmingly preaching to the choir. After all, more Americans identify as conservative than liberal. We’d be remiss to dismiss the rational conservative’s hopes, fears, and objections. It’s a ying-yang kind of thing. Accurate and concise equilibrium is key to finding a solution.
Yes, we’ll always have more than our fair share of squeaky wheels. We’ve seen the same denial play out with the coronavirus. So far, the naysayers haven’t been successful in swaying the collective mind of the population. People have learned to trust scientists with this one (you know, because their lives are at risk). Maybe the connection could be made with climate science as well?
“The coronavirus is a microcosm of the greater debate over climate change,” Hoffman says. “We didn’t believe in COVID-19 until we felt it, and we saw it. People need tangible evidence. In order to understand COVID-19 in the beginning, you needed to be a medical doctor, or you had to trust them.”
COVID-19 is a scaled-down, fast-forward case study of climate change. People will only shift gears when they start experiencing things first-hand. If policymakers and the public had trusted medical professionals earlier, where would we be now with the pandemic? Could we apply the same lessons of COVID-19 and learn to trust the climate scientists ripping their hair out in the presence of an indifferent international community?
Science vs. experience
“The danger we have as a society is that we don’t trust scientists,” says Hoffman. “And it becomes harder to accept climate change through personal experience, and people want personal experience before believing that something is true.”
Climate change is tough to grasp, let alone see and feel. There’s a barrier between science and the general public, the former deprived of essential information that’s often lost in esoteric jargon and mind-numbing data points.
This academic barrier creates two camps:
- People who take the projections of scientists and weaponize them into self-denigrating messages shaming people into unsustainable action.
- Those who deny the data because it’s so untenable and, the only visualizations they have, are bombastic radicals framing conservatives as selfish, inhuman obstacles.
Everyone loses in this scenario. The scientific community could help itself out by meeting people where they are, putting climate data into layman’s terms.
“Many people in the scientific and academic community have not done a good job of communicating what science says and how it comes to its conclusions,” says Hoffman.
Hoffman’s observation doesn’t discredit the methods scientists use to reach conclusions. It merely exposes a dire need for those findings to be attainable to the general public.
The question isn’t if we believe in climate change. It’s obvious most Americans do. The real question is whether people will trust an almost unanimous scientific consensus that climate change needs to be taken very seriously. A lot goes into why people “believe” in climate change but do little more than check a box. A significant reason we don’t see climate action is drawn from political ideologies ensconcing the discussion.
“If you want to get something done on climate change, it has to span the aisle,” Hoffman says. “It can’t just be done by liberal democrats, you’ve got to get conservative Republicans on board.”
For the conservative, that means hearing about climate change from someone who shares similar values, someone they can trust.
Standing in the breach: the role of the climate broker
Few fit that bill better than Dr. Katherine Hayhoe. As an Evangelical Christian, born and raised a missionary kid, who also happens to be a climate scientist, Hayhoe coexists comfortably in two seemingly antithetical worldviews.
Hayhoe has been named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People. Oh, and she was recently named “Champion of the Earth” by the United Nations.
In a recent presentation to a large Canadian church, Hayhoe connected conservative Evangelical values with climate science. She not only reconciled them but married the two, firmly stating that to address climate change is to enact the Christian mandate to steward creation and serve in love. She straddles two seemingly paradoxical worlds of fact and faith and conjoins the two beautifully.
She hits a “climate broker” home run.
“Why do I care? Why does this matter to me? … We’re pouring all of our effort and our prayers and our money and our time into a bucket to help fix poverty, to help fix disease, to help fix water shortages, to help fix hunger. And there’s a hole in the bucket, and the hole is climate change … Climate change is a threat multiplier affecting disproportionately the people we care most about, the poor and the needy.”
See what she did? She’s re-framing the argument. She redirects climate change from a liberal liberty land-grab to an opportunity to fulfill Evangelical duty.
“It’s consistent with why God made us … I care [about climate change] because we are told to walk in love … God made us responsible for every living thing, from the tiniest cell to our sister and our brother sitting next to us.”
Hayhoe deliberately draws parallels between climate solutions and Christian duty, helping Evangelical conservatives understand that the climate problem isn’t a liberal agenda bogeyman: It’s an opportunity to serve God. She calls this strategy “connecting the dots.”
The same strategy can be employed with farmers, business people, and freedom-loving conservative Americans everywhere. Climate change threatens a whole gambit of conservative values. Attaching climate action to securing these values is a viable bridge between two seemingly opposed worldviews.
In a 2018 TED Talk, Heyhoe shares how she connects with people disengaged from climate change.
Across the U.S. And Canada, says Hayhoe, political affiliation is the salient determinant of opinions on climate change. All the facts in the world won’t sway an opinion if it forms the bedrock of a person’s identity.
“We don’t need to talk about more science,” Hayhoe says. “Social science has taught us that if people have built their identity on rejecting a certain set of facts, then arguing over those facts is a personal attack. It causes them to dig in deeper and build a trench rather than building a bridge.”
If facts won’t change minds, what will?
Starting with the heart.
Shared values 101
“Begin with genuinely shared values,” says Hayhoe. “It’s not hitting people upside the head with facts and data, but saying ‘Hey, did you hear about these cool solutions I’ve heard about?’… Talking about it is the most important thing we can do, not starting off with things we disagree on, but starting with what we agree on.”
No matter where one stands on the ideological spectrum, everyone shares a vested interest in the health and well-being of their communities, natural spaces, country, and heritage. We all have families and loved ones. We all enjoy the outdoors to one extent or another. And all of these are threatened by climate change.
We start with values, not the latest IPCC report.
Most people agree that climate change is a significant issue. But when the rubber hits the road, few Americans are compelled to alter their lifestyles significantly. That’s why 73% of Americans think climate change is happening, but only 26% are “very worried” about it.
“Connecting the dots” between the elusive specter of climate change and its threat to value systems is key to making more people “very worried” about it, and to take action.
Boiling it down, we don’t have to adopt a particular ideology or scrap our existing values to accept and engage climate change. There’s not a facet of human experience that won’t be affected by a warming planet. The bad news is that agriculture, economic interests, family life, social values, the rule of law, national security, and natural resources will be compromised if climate projections come to pass. The good news is all of these areas can be engaged to become part of the solution and be better off as a result. All it takes is connecting the dots between value systems and the myriad no-regrets solutions to climate change.
Everyone disagrees on facts and causes, but everyone can agree on one thing: A better future is good.
“Fear is not what is going to motivate us for the long-term, sustained change we need to fix this thing,” says Hayhoe. “What we need to fix this thing is rational hope. Yes, we absolutely need to recognize what’s at stake … But we need a vision of a better future.”
A future with abundant, clean energy. A future with a stable economy providing well-paying green hobs. A future that champions personal liberties and rights.
Climate impacts may be difficult to ascertain, but the related effects are here and now. The birthing pains of climate change are ubiquitous: Air pollution, drought, shaky economies, deforestation, degraded farmland. Conservatives can get on board with clean water and air, healthy soil, and strong local economies. Implementing the most substantive solutions to climate change will produce $56.4 trillion in global net savings by 2050, and generate a $16 trillion profit to boot. And these are low end projections: Real savings and profits could be twice that or higher.
And not to mention these no-regrets solutions will sequester at least 997.11 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050. That’s about the the weight of 50,000,000 midsize cars of CO2 pulled out of the atmosphere by 2050. And again, that’s a low-end projection.
The economic incentives alone are an important tool to help sway conservatives. And by implementing at least some of the solutions that appeal to conservatives, we will attack some of the causes of climate change.
It’s a win-win whether climate change is “real” or not.
Instead of alienating conservatives with an “all-in or all-out” approach to fighting climate change, we can at least get them on board with many of the no-regrets solutions they’ll benefit from either way. This will create agency and incentive for them to explore additional ways to implement strategies that are not only good for their tribe, but the planet as well.
The alternative is further alienating them from discussion and more kicking the can down the road.
Here’s a (very) inexhaustive list of talking points connecting conservative values with climate change:
- Threats to national security
- Putting Americans to work with green jobs
- Food security
- Competition in international green tech markets
- Protection of natural habitat for hunting and recreation
- Evangelical ideals of justice and charity for the poor and oppressed
- Disintegration of communities
Connecting the head to the heart — the facts with value systems — is key to engaging everyone on one of the most critical issues we’ll face as a species.
“We can’t give in to despair,” says Hayhoe. “We have to go out and actively look for the hope that we need to inspire us to act — and that hope begins with a conversation today.”