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How to Talk to Conservatives About Climate Change

Conservatives perceive terrorism and crime to be much larger and more immediate threats than climate change. How can their minds change?

Michael Barnard
Aug 13, 2018 · 8 min read
Photo: millionsjoker/iStock/Getty Images Plus

The United States has a climate change acceptance problem. It’s elected a President who’s on record claiming global warming is a Chinese hoax. One of its two major political parties has “refusal to accept climate science” as a major policy. It’s taking steps to leave the only agreement that every other country in the world has ratified: COP21, the agreement to work to limit global warming.

And a lot of Americans simply just don’t accept how well climate scientists understand the issue and the solutions.

Luckily, there’s hope. Cognitive science is helping us understand how to communicate more effectively with people who don’t currently accept the science behind global warming and climate change.

Why is the U.S. like this?

So, what’s going on with Republicans that has led to this situation? There are three things we can do something about, and a handful of other factors that play into the larger issues.

First, there’s been an increase in tribalism. There is a strong plurality of Republican voters who do not accept the science of climate change because they are Republican Party supporters as much as anything else. Then, there are innumerable Evangelical Christians for whom climate change has become an article of faith. These are so-called values voters, not evidence voters. Finally, there are a lot of Republicans who have a more security- and risk-focused perception of the world. This is not in any way a pejorative description. This is just an accurate description of where the Republicans are right now, and it’s completely permissible, if unfortunate, for them to be this way.

Let’s take these issues one by one and look at the other factors at the end.


What’s important about tribalism? Members of a tribe tend to only listen to other members of their same tribe. Change a couple of influential tribe members’ minds and they will influence a lot of their fellow members. But you can’t do that by broadcasting to skeptics. You have to identify the influencers within the tribe, find a couple that are amenable to the discussion, and spend a lot of quality time focusing on them individually or in small groups.

And even then there’s a challenge, simply because influencers feed off of their influenced groups as much as the other way around. Often, they are just better at expressing the vague consensus of the group. As such, they will frequently not be interested in speaking counter to what they perceive the group to believe.

Values Voters

Evangelicals are one of the ultimate tribes in the U.S. right now, and they have the ear of the President. Trump even has an Evangelical Executive Advisory Board, not an ecumenical religious advisory council. A lot of these people sincerely believe that Christmas is under attack, that liberals think they are intellectually inferior, and a bunch of other things which spring from a combination of tribal identity and faith. These beliefs are reinforced regularly from the pulpit. Evangelical pastors were one of Donald Trump’s most effective communication vehicles during his presidential campaign. It’s almost impossible to communicate effectively with most evangelicals about climate change without sharing most of their values.

But Dr. Katharine Hayhoe has broken through that nearly impossible barrier and may even be getting through to some evangelicals. She’s an evangelical Christian. She’s the Director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She spends a lot of time talking with students and evangelicals about climate change. She’s very successful, and it’s how she does it that matters.

We all pick and choose which threats to respond to and we all do it more or less unconsciously.

The Guardian states: “Katharine Hayhoe’s lecture presented climate science information through the lens of an evangelical tradition. In addition to presenting scientific evidence, it included an introduction about the difference between faith and science: faith is based on things that are spiritually discerned, whereas science is based on observation. About six minutes of the 33- to 53-minute lectures were devoted to theology-based ethics.”

Hayhoe’s not talking down to them, she’s not ignoring their worldview, she’s not asking them to think like a non-religious person; quite the opposite. She spends a portion of her lectures on reconciling faith and climate change acceptance, and she does it from an insider’s perspective. Hayhoe successfully has become an influencer within one of her tribes, evangelicals, and helps them and others bridge the gaps. And if we had a hundred people like her, within the various tribes, who were effective communicators, sympathetic and aligned, the U.S. could pivot on its axis quite effectively.

Security and Risk Perspective

Business Insider reported that a number of cognitive studies have found that liberals and conservatives see the world somewhat differently. For example, conservatives perceive threats and risks more readily and give them greater weight in their judgments than liberals. (This is statistically significant, not universal; and this is just an observation, not a pejorative statement.)

Conservatives perceive the threat of terrorism and crime to be greater than the threat of climate change. They see these things as more directly threatening to their families. And they will put more emphasis on things which impact their families and friends than on other people elsewhere.

You can hear this in some of the language they use around climate change as they deprecate the risks: It’s only a degree or two of increase by 2100; it’s only a millimeter a decade of sea level rise; we can just turn up the air conditioning. When you realize conservatives perceive terrorism and crime to be much larger and more immediate threats than climate change, those statements might make more sense. We all pick and choose which threats to respond to and we all do it more or less unconsciously.

In this context, there are definitely lines of communication which can help. Personalizing climate change risks to the individuals and their families helps. Pointing out the increase in failed global states due to climate change, and hence in the increase in likely terrorism, can help. Pointing out how the American military perceives climate change as a major risk also helps.

But to draw this back to the first two points, you can’t do this by broadcasting at the conservative base from the outside. You have to do this from the inside, or by convincing influencers on the inside, so that they can do the communicating.

What else is going on here that’s worth understanding?

Extreme Weather Helps

Reddit conducted a survey in 2016 of people who indicated that they had been “climate change deniers.” They were asked what had changed their minds. The results were published on the Yale Climate blog. (This isn’t a peer-reviewed study, but it is informative.) Twenty-one percent of survey participants said they changed their minds in large part because extreme weather events and major seasonal weather pattern changes had made it impossible for them to believe that nothing was happening. While weather isn’t climate, patterns in spring and winter onset and major weather disasters have a way of cutting through the fog.

Last year’s unprecedented string of severe hurricanes will help more people over the perceptual bridge. Conservatives in Florida and Texas will be more open to messages about climate change after Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Michael. Similarly, the unprecedented scope and severity of wildfires in the western U.S. will be making a lot more conservatives amenable to discussions of what man’s impact on the climate has to do with it.

Unsurprisingly, oil and gas lobbies don’t want action on climate change. They like their profits. And they have lots of them.

This has come at an awful cost in terms of destruction. Thankfully, weather forecasting, in part due to investments in climate research, has become much better at predicting what hurricanes will actually do. Changes to Florida’s building code helped, too. But the devastation is still there. That’s unsettling.

Katrina and New Orleans have some lessons in this regard as well. All told, 20 percent of people from New Orleans left after Hurricane Katrina and never went back. A similar pattern is observed in every major weather disaster zone. People’s perception of risk is heightened after experiencing a major hurricane or wildfire.

Given the uptick in weather events where conservatives live, I predict many will be less strident and more open in 2019.

Some Americans Accept Science

While climate scientists accept that humans have caused climate change, that hasn’t translated into equivalent acceptance among the general populace. According to a Pew Research survey of U.S. beliefs in 2016, 48 percent of Americans accept that humans are the primary cause of climate change. Furthermore, another 31 percent accepted that the climate was changing but ascribed it to dominantly natural causes. Only 20 percent thought that the evidence wasn’t strong — before the wildfires and hurricanes of 2017 — that the climate was changing at all. This suggests a clear opportunity for discussions regarding climate change.

Pew shows the political divide that has to be worked through. Moderate and liberal Republicans are obviously more amenable to the conversation. But moderate and conservative Democrats are still 37 percent likely to not believe that humans are causing the change or that the change isn’t occurring. There’s work to be done there, too.

Fossil Fuels Are a Problem

One of the major reasons Republicans are tribally locked into denying the science of climate change is because fossil fuel funding overwhelmingly flows to the Republicans. Funding during the last U.S. federal election saw only one Democrat in the top 20 oil-and-gas funded list, while 19 Republicans received the vast majority of fossil fuel funding.

Unsurprisingly, oil and gas lobbies don’t want action on climate change. They like their profits. And they have lots of them. It’s changing now, but they are still inordinately influential in U.S. politics and that means a lot of political influencers on the Republican side won’t be coming out for human-caused climate change anytime soon.

But as the political chart above shows, Republican politicians are not well aligned with the beliefs of their constituents, who show a majority of acceptance that the climate is changing. The dissonance is increasing. Conservatives in the U.S. are seeing that, regardless of cause, their families are threatened by the changing climate. And politicians all rule at the will of the people.

What You Can Do Right Now

There’s hope. Find influencers and convince them. Play up “the climate is changing” angle and play down “the humans are causing it” angle. Find people inside the tribe who can be effective influencers. Talk about the hurricanes and wildfires. Don’t broadcast and expect to be effective.

And accept that just because conservatives see the world differently does not make the way they see the world wrong or inferior. They may see the world differently, but we all live in the same world, regardless.

The Future is Electric

The Future is Electric is the house journal of TFIE Strategy Inc, a firm which assists global clients to future proof themselves in our rapidly changing world of business and technical innovation, and geopolitical and climate disruption.

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