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Taking Politics Out of Climate Change

Climate change has become politicized in the last 20 years, but now conservatives and liberals are tackling the issue.

ByChristina CouchNOVA NextNOVA Next

Sweetwater, Texas, a town of nearly 11,000 smack in the center of the state, is known for three things: the world’s largest rattlesnake round-up and associated Miss Snake Charmer beauty pageant, the town’s two historical museums—one dedicated to American pioneers, the other to female World War II service pilots—and wind turbines. Nolan County, which surrounds Sweetwater, is home to nearly 1,400 wind turbines, more than anywhere else in the world. The roughly 900-square-mile county produces enough wind energy to power more than half a million homes and, should Nolan ever secede from the U.S., it would be the 25 th largest wind energy producer in the world, just behind Greece and Belgium.

But while Sweetwater is at the vanguard of the clean energy transition, if you ask most residents, they’re not doing it to combat climate change. According to research from Yale University, less than half of Nolan County’s population believes that global warming is manmade, and only 40% think that scientists agree that global warming is happening.

Beliefs about the causes, impacts, risks, and cures to climate change vary wildly by political ideology, making it tricky for legislators to reach across the aisle.

That disconnect between action and intent isn’t itself an anomaly, says Rebecca Romsdahl, an environmental science and policy professor at the University of North Dakota. Back in 2012, Romsdahl’s team surveyed more than 200 local governments across ten predominantly Republican states in the Great Plains and found that more than half were running initiatives that reduce humans’ contribution to global warming, ranging from investing in city-operated “green” vehicles to the installation of efficient streetlights. But policies were rarely framed as climate change programs. Instead, in an effort to attract more universal support, policies that mitigated climate change were branded as economic development, sustainability, resource management, or public health initiatives.

“They would focus on these common values that people want to have—clean air, clean water, a healthy community, they want to save money on either their transportation costs or their household energy bills,” Romsdahl says. “They recognized within their community that using the term ‘climate change’ was risking either a backlash or a lack of support that would make that policy either difficult to pass or impossible.”

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The issue of climate change has become a political football in Washington, D.C., and in statehouses across the U.S. While 70% of Americans agree that global temperatures are rising, once you dive into the specifics, agreement tends to evaporate. Beliefs about the causes, impacts, risks, and cures to climate change vary wildly by political ideology, making it tricky for legislators to reach across the aisle.

But there are glimmers of hope that the era of gridlock could come to an end, at least for climate change. An increasing number of lawmakers, educators, scientists, and activists from across the political spectrum are using research to depoliticize the issue and create bipartisan solutions. And they’re finding success in some surprising places.

Identity Politics

Bridging the political gap is challenging, in part because climate change has come to encompass so much more than just science, says Paul Walker, executive director of ConservAmerica, a nonprofit organization that promotes conservative legislation aimed at tackling environmental and energy issues, including a proposal to eliminate taxes on revenues generated from emissions-free energy sources like nuclear and hydropower, as well as pushing against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline .

“I’ve been in focus groups where we bring in a room full of self-identified conservative and very conservative voters. We ask them, ‘Raise your hand if you think climate change is a real issue.’ No hands go up,” Walker says. “Then you bring them into one-on-one conversations and 75% say, ‘Yeah, I’m totally worried about climate change.’ There’s an orthodoxy. There’s a tribalism that says, ‘I can’t raise my hand. I can’t say I’m worried about this.’ ”

Smoke billowing out of industrial chimneys.

Privately, self-identified conservatives say that climate change is an issue that worries them.

That’s because disagreements on climate science often aren’t really about climate; they’re about identity. A growing body of research shows that the way in which people interpret scientific results can change depending on whether those results support policies that bolster or undermine an individual’s moral and political beliefs. Troy Campbell, a social psychologist at the University of Oregon, has seen this reflected in liberals and conservatives alike. A few years ago, Campbell, along with Duke University psychology and neuroscience professor Aaron Kay, conducted a series of experiments to understand why the two groups interpret scientific information so differently.

“There’s a tribalism that says, ‘I can’t raise my hand. I can’t say I’m worried about this.’ ”

In one experiment, participants were asked if they agreed with a statement from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which said that humans are the cause of global warming and that worldwide temperatures will rise by 3.2˚ F in the 21 st century. Republicans were far more likely to be skeptical of the statement than Democrats, but their degree of skepticism varied according to whether they believe that the solutions would harm the economy. Republicans who saw an economic downside were less likely to buy into the science than those who didn’t. A second experiment presented participants with the same statement along with one of two climate interventions, either a policy that restricted emissions or another designed to boost green technologies within the free market. Republicans were far more likely to believe the IPCC statement when it came with a free-market solution.

Campbell and Kay coined this phenomenon “solution aversion”—“downplaying or outright denying a problem based on whether its solution fits in a specific current belief structure”—and they noticed it among liberals in the very same study, this time with gun control. They presented the participants with one of two articles on home invasions, one that was pro-gun rights, the other pro-gun control. People who favored tighter gun control, typically a liberal ideology, believed that home invasion was a worse problem when the solution centered around gun control. When the solution focused on looser gun restrictions, gun control advocates were less likely to believe that home invasions are a serious issue.

Beliefs—whether liberal or conservative—can influence our perception and reasoning capabilities.

That’s because beliefs can influence our perception and reasoning capabilities as well. A few years ago , researchers from Yale, Cornell, Ohio State, and the University of Oregon demonstrated this by first assessing study participants’ numeracy skills—the ability to reason with quantitative information—and then presenting them with a math problem. Participants had to evaluate data to determine whether patients were benefiting from using a hypothetical new skin cream. Unsurprisingly, participants who aced the initial numeracy assessment were also good at solving the skin cream problem.

But when the researchers substituted skin cream for politically charged issues, the results changed dramatically. Numeracy skills mattered far less when participants evaluated whether a hypothetical gun control measure impacted crime rates. Conservative participants were more successful problem solvers than liberals when the data showed that gun control led to higher crime rates. The results were flipped when the data showed that gun control reduced crime. When the data favored the interpretation people wanted, they were substantially better at interpreting it, especially among those with the sharpest numeracy skills.

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Dan Kahan, the study’s lead author and a professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School, says that he’s seen this pattern in other studies that measure scientific literacy and critical reasoning. There’s “this kind of perverse dynamic,” Kahan says. “As people did better on a critical reasoning test, the more aggressively they were misperceiving information in a way that generated political polarization.”

How We Got Here

While few topics today are as polarized as climate change, it wasn’t always this way. Conservative leaders led the charge on several landmark environmental reforms: Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; he also signed the Clean Air Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. George H.W. Bush helped pass the nation’s first cap-and-trade legislation in an effort to fight acid rain. And Theodore Roosevelt protected more than 230 million acres of public land, established the United States Forest Service, and was instrumental in expanding the number of national parks.

Twenty years ago, Democrats and Republicans held essentially the same views on climate change. In 1997, about half of each group said that they believed the effects of global warming had already begun, according to research from Gallup. Then the debate over the Kyoto protocol began to ramp up. By that point, opposition to climate science had been steadily building, fueled largely by efforts from oil and gas lobbies, and it sharply intensified as the U.S. considered ratifying the international agreement.

In 1997, approximately equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats believed that the effects of global warming had already begun. Since then, opinions have diverged.

By 2003, the U.S. had withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol and the partisan gap had widened, with 60% of Democrats and 42% of Republicans believing that the effects of global warming had already begun. Three years later, the gap widened to 70%-45%. By 2010, 70% of Democrats still said they thought climate change had begun, but less than a third of Republicans did.

“When it looked like climate legislation would pass in Congress, communication to oppose climate legislation became much more urgent.”

Ed Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, says the 2010 numbers were partially due to a wave of opposition to the 2009 American Clean Energy and Security Act which passed the House of Representatives. The bill proposed a cap-and-trade program that would have restricted the emission of greenhouse gases.

“When it looked like there was a real possibility that climate legislation would pass in Congress, communication to oppose climate legislation became much more urgent and insistent and persistent,” Maibach says. “They really did ramp up their game.”

The belief gap has also widened as media outlets have become increasingly partisan, but Maibach says that the tide on climate acceptance is beginning to turn. In the last two years, his research has shown a 20% increase in the proportion of conservative voters who report believing in climate science.

“That is a tsunami of a change in public opinion in a very short period of time,” he says. “If it continues to move in that direction, it means that what we’re witnessing right now is a decoupling between one’s identity as a conservative Republican and their views about human-caused climate change.”

A Pioneer

But that decoupling is far from complete. Bob Inglis has the political scars to prove it. A lifelong Republican, Inglis represented South Carolina’s 4 th District for 12 nonconsecutive years, racking up endorsements from the National Rifle Association, the National Right to Life Committee, and the Christian Coalition of America as well as a 93% approval rating from the American Conservative Union. Inglis resisted accepting climate science—“if Al Gore was for it, I was against it,” he says—but he began questioning his position in 2004 after his family urged him to reconsider the evidence. His skepticism was challenged again two years later when the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology traveled to Antarctica and Inglis peered into drilled ice cores, seeing for himself how sharply the frozen historical record revealed an increase in carbon dioxide that coincided with the Industrial Revolution.

Even after seeing the evidence first-hand, Inglis says that he wasn’t truly convinced until he met Scott Heron, someone who saw the world the way he did. Heron was an oceanographer and a devout Christian. On a 2008 trip to the Great Barrier Reef, he took members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology snorkeling to show them exactly what was happening beneath the surface. Inglis was struck by Heron’s devotion. “I could tell he was worshipping God while he was showing me the wonders of the reef—no words spoken,” Inglis says. “I could just see it in his eyes. I could hear it in his voice. I could see it all over his face that he was engaged in worship.”

Exploring Australia's Great Barrier Reef helped Bob Inglis, then a congressman, to change his views on climate change.

After seeing the reef, Inglis and Heron discussed their world views. Heron said that he saw his own personal steps towards conservation as ways of loving God and those around him. “That got me really inspired,” Inglis says. “I wanted to be like Scott, loving God and loving people.”

Inglis returned to the U.S. and introduced the Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act of 2009 , which proposed a carbon tax to reduce federal payroll taxes, but his timing wasn’t good. The bill was introduced in the thick of the housing crash, when voters were more concerned with paying their mortgages than reducing their footprint, and the Tea Party movement was gaining steam. The bill failed, and Inglis watched as longtime supporters began distancing themselves the more he spoke about climate science. Inglis lost his 2010 primary bid and fumbled to figure out what to do next.

Today, he considers himself somewhat of a pioneer—a Republican who’s weathered the backlash that comes with spearheading a shift in party thinking. In 2012, Inglis launched RepublicEN, a nonprofit education organization dedicated to charting a path for conservative leaders to take the reins on climate issues. When addressing either politicians or the general public, Inglis doesn’t talk about believing in climate science, but he does discuss the elimination of fuel subsidies, free enterprise environmental tax reform, and the economic benefits of green technologies. They’re all ways that conservatives can become champions of climate issues without sacrificing their identity.

“We’re striving mightily to put a different cultural marking on it that says, ‘This is the strength of conservatives,’ ” Inglis says. “Conservatives, you’re the smart kid in the class. Raise your hand. You know the answer is to fix economics, and then environmental problems take care of themselves.”

Shifting the Conversation

Reframing climate-friendly policies around concepts like job creation and economic development has already led to landmark programs, like the wind farms near Sweetwater, Texas. In fact, 80% of wind farms are located in Republican-held congressional districts, many of which report the lowest acceptance levels of climate science in the U.S.

Daniel Richter, legislative director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, has seen how reframing can work first-hand. CCL, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group that pushes for bipartisan climate solutions, trains volunteers to build relationships with their elected officials to bolster support for the organization’s initiatives, which currently include a proposal to add a fee to carbon emissions and return the dividends back to U.S. families. Richter says that the group uses two basic communication strategies—kindness first, solutions next. “You can talk to anybody, but if you don’t find something that you appreciate about this person’s record and you’re not willing to express that appreciation, then you can’t call yourself CCL,” Richter says.

Like Inglis, Richter’s group also doesn’t immediately focus on science when talking with skeptical leaders. In their conversations, volunteers present politicians and staffers with policies focused on boosting the economy and creating jobs. They’ll often use language those leaders have used themselves in speeches and press events.

Liberals are often hesitant to acknowledge when conservatives take positive steps on climate change. “You should be rewarding someone for being bold and brave on climate, not punishing them.”

Richter believes that CCL’s strategy is working. In 2014, the group engaged in three productive meetings with conservative leaders for every one “where it’s clear that they don’t want us in there,” he says. Over the past three years, that ratio has shifted to 10 productive meetings for every bad experience. CCL also has been instrumental in establishing the Climate Solutions Caucus—a bipartisan House of Representatives group formed in 2016 to address the impact of climate change—as well as supporting a resolution signed by 17 House Republicans last March that pledges to study the causes and effects of global warming and to seek out “economically viable” solutions.

Of Republicans who have publicly expressed doubt about climate science, “I would say the majority of them personally, privately believe that climate change is happening and do believe that humans have an impact,” Richter says. “The problem is that they don’t know how they can get from here to there. They don’t know how they can politically get from where they are now to supporting that in public.”

Richter adds that liberals, even those within the conservation community, oftentimes hurt the cause. Many liberals are hesitant to acknowledge that conservative principles can play a role in efforts to mitigate climate change, too. Failing to do so only makes the polarization of the issue worse. Plus, liberals frequently don’t recognize their own scientific biases —though it’s worth noting that these same biases don’t fall as cleanly along party lines as climate denial .

Liberals are often hesitant to acknowledge when conservatives take positive steps on climate change. When conservative leaders join the Caucus or sign on to a climate change resolution, Richter says, “then they are suddenly a target for environment groups,” who are quick to point out that these conservatives aren’t doing enough. “It’s really penalizing them from the left for taking what is really a bold and brave step to do something on climate,” Richter says. “You should be rewarding someone for being bold and brave on climate, not punishing them.”

Troy Campbell, the University of Oregon social psychologist, agrees. “People who are the most resistant to [accepting climate science] are the people who have been told that they’re terrible at the game. They’ve been told, ‘You are horrible at being environmental. You’re bad and will never be as great as us,’ ” he says. “That feeling is leading these people to sort of deny the game because they’re being told that they’re the worst player.”

Many liberals haven’t recognized the importance of getting conservatives on board, says Josiah Neeley, energy policy director for R Street Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that supports research and legislation aimed at promoting free markets and limited government on a wide array of issues.

“Over the last couple years—up until election day eve really—I think there was a kind of attitude on the left that, ‘Well, we’re going to win anyway. We really don’t need conservative buy-in or support for this stuff,’ ” he says. A lack of bipartisan support leads to short-term initiatives that are enacted by one administration and rescinded when the opposing party comes into power, he adds. Several Obama administration initiatives, including the Clean Power Plan, are currently in jeopardy because they didn’t go through Congress and never garnered conservative buy-in. Creating sustainable solutions that can last through both Republican and Democrat-controlled administrations requires a willingness from both sides to work together. “My impression is that there’s been more of a realization of that over the last few months,” he says.

Where Change is Happening

The environment itself may be helping that along, believes David Titley, retired rear admiral and former chief oceanographer for the U.S. Navy. “In regions of the country where people are starting to understand that they or their families may be personally impacted by climate change, you are seeing a pretty quick change in attitudes,” he says.

Titley now serves as director of Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk. Apart from his academic duties, he talks to voters and policymakers about how climate change is affecting national security and military efforts.

Senate hearing
Rear Adm. David Titley, now retired, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard during the hearing on "Defending U.S. Economic Interests in the Changing Arctic" on July 27, 2011.

“Mostly, when I would talk in the Pentagon about this, I would talk very little about why the climate’s changing,” Titley says. Instead, he shows how global temperatures are increasing and focuses on the impacts—how sea level rise will degrade naval bases and military installations worldwide, how extreme weather like droughts in Syria can lead to greater instability in poorer countries, how shifting temperature patterns intensify food and water shortages, which exacerbate tensions between conflicting groups.

He also discusses why delaying mitigation efforts weakens the United States’ ability to deal with global issues in the future. “If we just keep doing this and don’t change anything, it will bankrupt us,” Titley says. Eventually, “we’ll spend 100% of the Department of Defense budget on climate adaptation, and I don’t think anybody, myself included, wants to do that.”

“There is a growing number of Republicans on Capitol Hill who want to move on this issue, and they need political support.”

Well-respected military leaders like Titley and U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, who recently called climate change a national security threat, can help prepare the field so conservative officials can become equal players in addressing the issue, says Andrea Strimling Yodsampa, CEO of DEPLOY/US, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that seeks to further pro-growth solutions to climate change and clean energy. Elected officials will also need support from religious leaders, conservative think tanks, and CEOs and investors, who can speak specifically to the economic risks of global warming and the opportunities associated with clean energy innovation.

“On Capitol Hill, there is a growing number of Republican members of Congress in both the House and Senate who want to move on this issue, and they need political support and protection to be able to do so effectively,” Yodsampa says.

Some leaders are taking that political risk already. They’re bolstered by shifting views among voters, support from groups like DEPLOY/US, ConservAmerica, and RepublicEN, and funding from organizations like the ClearPath Action Fund , a new nonprofit that provided $4.8 million in campaign support last year for Republicans who back conservative clean energy plans. Last February, the Climate Leadership Council, a conservative research and advocacy organization that includes leaders from the Bush and Reagan administrations, proposed replacing many of the Obama administration’s carbon emissions regulations with a $40 per ton carbon tax that would send the proceeds directly back to American families. The group estimates that a family of four would receive approximately $2,000 in payments in the first year, with amounts steadily rising as the tax rate increases over time. Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine have spoken about the dangers of climate change for years. And even as leaders within the Trump administration deny that carbon emissions substantially contribute to climate change, others like House representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida’s 26 th District are pushing back, calling that position “akin to saying the Earth is flat in 2017.”

As more Republicans speak out and introduce legislation that addresses climate issues using conservative approaches and solutions, Paul Walker from ConservAmerica believes that more conservative leaders and voters will follow suit.

“We all have deluded ourselves into believing it’s a right-wing issue or it’s a left-wing issue. It’s really an everyone issue,” he says. “If we don’t get the Republicans on board, we’re not going to really have America on board, and we’re not really going to solve this global problem.”

Photo credits: Orjan F. Ellingvag/Getty, U.S. Coast Guard, georgeclerk/iStockphoto, Saad Amer/WGBH, Tchami/Flickr (CC BY-SA)

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