Why and How Progressives Should Talk with Conservatives about Climate Change
Can liberals and progressives talk to conservatives about climate change? Some on the left say, “No.” They have the idea that it is a waste of time to bring conservatives into the discussion—conservatives have nothing to contribute, and they are all deniers anyway.
I disagree. Here is why I think discussion of the issue across political lines can be fruitful, if it is approached in the right way.
Why talk to conservatives about climate change?
The first reason for progressives to talk to conservatives, then, is that outright denial is out of fashion, at least if you believe data from surveys of public opinion. According to one recent poll, even among those who self-identify as conservative Republicans, some 54 percent believe that the earth is warming and that human activity is contributing to it. Only 9 percent of conservatives deny outright that climate change is happening. As GOP presidential candidate Chris Christie has said, “Global warming is real. I don’t think that’s deniable. And I do think human activity contributes to it. The question is what we do to deal with it.”
Instead of denial, what we now have is a debate over the magnitude of the human impact on global warming. Climate sensitivity is a key concept in this debate. Climate sensitivity means the amount by which global temperatures increase for each doubling of the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gives a range of estimates for climate sensitivity ranging from 1.5◦ to 4.5◦ C. The IPCC does not give a specific “most likely” estimate, but for the sake of discussion, many people use 3◦ C as a consensus value for sensitivity. (For a discussion of sensitivity estimates, with extensive citations, see this and other posts on Judith Curry’s website Climate, Etc.) These days, mainstream conservative publications are more likely to cite the work of climate scientists whose estimates lie within, but in the lower half, of the IPCC range, than the less credible claims of outright deniers.
For example, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, highly critical of the agenda for the COP21 Paris climate conference, had this to say:
The latest science on the “sensitivity” of the world’s temperature to a doubling of carbon-dioxide levels is also reassuring. Several recent peer-reviewed studies of climate sensitivity based on actual observations . . . conclude that this key measure is much lower—about 30%-50% lower—than the climate models are generally assuming.
Applied to the 3% “consensus” estimate, that would imply a sensitivity of 1.5◦ to 2.1◦, within but near the low end of the IPCC range. It is worth emphasizing that a sensitivity range of 1.5◦ to 2.1◦ is not low enough to justify a do-nothing stance on climate policy. Lower climate sensitivity would mean that the time window of opportunity for action is a few decades longer than implied by higher estimates, but does not change the fact that continued steady growth of emissions would cause serious harm in the next century, if not before.
A second reason that progressives should engage in dialog is that they themselves are the ones their conservative friends and neighbors are most likely to believe. According to recent survey data, 65 percent of Americans want to learn more about climate change, but who do they trust for information? Although 71 percent of all Americans say they trust scientists, that is true for only 38 percent of conservatives. Mainstream media are the most frequent source of information about climate change for most people, but only 27 percent of conservatives say they trust the mainstream media. In contrast, 67 percent of Americans say they trust what family and friends tell them, even though only 16 percent hear from family and friends on this topic at least once a month.
A third reason for progressives to talk to conservatives about climate change is that they themselves might learn something. By hearing what the other side thinks, they improve their ability to articulate their own views. No one ever said it better than John Stuart Mill, who wrote,
He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. . . Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them. . . he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form. (On Liberty, Ch. 2, 1869.)
Framing the issue
Success in establishing a dialog with conservatives depends on how the issue of climate change is framed. Climate posts on progressive sites often have an alarmist tone, apparently on the theory that the more frightened readers are by the potential harm that global warming can cause, the more likely they are to act now and urge others to act. However, alarmist messages may not resonate well with conservatives.
The popular 2009 climate documentary, The Age of Stupid, is a case in study in how not to frame the topic. The title is intentionally insulting, and the movie’s scientific premise also stretches credibility. It features a narrator who, in 2055, is the last surviving human, living on an oil platform off the steamy coast of Norway. That degree of warming on such a short time scale is not just on the high end of estimates from mainstream scientific sources, but well beyond it.
Other ways of framing the issue of climate change are more likely to draw conservatives into a fruitful discussion. If we look at what concerned conservatives themselves say about environmental issues, we find an emphasis on duty, shared responsibility, and stewardship. Two quotes from the master communicator, Ronald Reagan, illustrate these themes:
Preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it’s common sense. Our physical health, our social happiness, and our economic well-being will be sustained only by all of us working in partnership as thoughtful, effective stewards of our natural resources. 
What is a conservative after all but one who conserves, one who is committed to protecting and holding close the things by which we live. . . And we want to protect and conserve the land on which we live — our countryside, our rivers and mountains, our plains and meadows and forests. This is our patrimony. This is what we leave to our children. And our great moral responsibility is to leave it to them either as we found it or better than we found it. 
The theme of stewardship resonates especially strongly with Christian conservatives. A Google search for “Christian environmental stewardship” lists dozens of organizations and websites devoted to the topic.
On the other hand, some conservatives may be more responsive to the message that acting now to slow climate change is good economics and good risk management. For example:
- Risk reduction. People with business experience will know that it is important to protect their companies not only against things that are certain to happen, but also against less likely events that would cause great harm if, by chance, they did happen. The recent book Climate Shock, by Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman, draws on ideas from insurance and financial management to explain why it makes economic sense to guard against the “tail risk” of climate catastrophe.
- Property rights. All conservatives recognize that mutual respect for the property rights of others is a bedrock principle of capitalism. Pollution of other people’s air, destruction of their crops, or flooding of their land are as much violations of property rights as theft or arson. The Property and Environmental Research Center in Bozeman, Montana offers a wealth of materials on this theme.
- Conservatives are wary of intrusive regulations and mandates that they see as burdensome to business. They are more likely to be sympathetic to policies that employ prices and market incentives to encourage environmentally responsible behavior.
A recent survey from ClearPath.org, a conservative organization that favors action on climate change, shows the importance of framing. The survey asks voters whether they would support hypothetical candidates who take each of several different positions on climate change. Here are some examples, showing the percentage of conservative Republicans who support each approach:
- Only 10 percent of conservatives would support a candidate who says, “Climate change is an urgent challenge and therefore we need to strengthen the EPA’s restrictions on carbon emissions and signiﬁcantly subsidize clean energy.”
- Conservative support rises to 82 percent for a candidate who says, “We should expand the use of clean energy regardless of the debate over climate, because it will reduce our dependence on foreign oil, reduce air pollution, and improve public health.”
- Conservative support is 75 percent for a candidate who says, “Even if we aren’t certain what the climate will be decades from now, we should accelerate clean energy now to minimize the risk of serious climate change eﬀects or the need for harsh regulation.”
- Conservative support is 72 percent for one who says, “Climate change is a challenge, and we need an approach that is market-based instead of one driven by more top-down government regulation.”
A climate change resolution advanced by Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY) provides a final example of how the issue can be framed in a way that appeals to conservatives:
Whereas it is a conservative principle to protect, conserve, and be good stewards of our environment, responsibly plan for all market factors, and base our policy decisions in science and quantifiable facts on the ground . . .
. . . Resolved, that the House of Representatives commits to working constructively, using our tradition of American ingenuity, innovation, and exceptionalism, to create and support economically viable, and broadly supported private and public solutions to study and address the causes and effects of measured changes to our global and regional climates, including mitigation efforts and efforts to balance human activities that have been found to have an impact.
Many progressives see climate change as such a serious threat that we should stop it at all costs. Their first instinct is to support top-down regulations to stop corporate pollution in its tracks and force reluctant consumers to change their lifestyles. In contrast, conservatives who show concern about climate change tend to balance the risks of climate harm against the costs of environmental regulation. To minimize the costs of climate action, they favor market-based policies that provide incentives and encourage innovation.
For example, a recent survey by the Yale Project on Climate Communication found majority conservative support for these two policy variants:
- Tax rebates for energy efficient vehicles or solar panels: 64 percent support from all Republicans and 57 percent from conservative Republicans
- Government funding for research into renewable energy such as wind or solar: 63 percent support from all Republicans and 55 percent from conservatives
Some kind of carbon tax is the policy variant overwhelmingly favored by conservative policy professionals who support climate action. Unfortunately, proponents of carbon taxes have to overcome the problem that conservative politicians, as opposed to policy analysts, are loath to use the word “tax” unless it is immediately followed by the word “cut.”
However, a poll from National Surveys on Energy and Environment at the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College shows that conservative attitudes toward a carbon tax are highly sensitive to the way in which tax revenues would be used:
- Just 15 percent of Republicans would be willing to support a carbon tax if no use of the revenue is specified.
- A proposal to rebate the revenue to taxpayers increases Republican support to 43 percent.
- A revenue neutral carbon tax that earmarks revenues for clean energy research draws 51 percent Republican support.
In addition, some conservatives who do not actively support any kind of climate change action are willing to consider a carbon tax as the lesser evil compared to top-down command-and-control regulations. Better a carbon tax that treats all sources of pollution equally than President Obama’s “War on coal.”
The bottom line
The bottom line is that if you are a progressive who wants to bring conservatives into the climate change conversation, you should begin by doing your homework. Read what concerned conservatives write for their more skeptical fellows. There are more concerned conservatives out there than many progressives realize. I would recommend Climate Unplugged, ClearPath, and the R Street Institute as places to start.
Following Mill’s enjoinder to learn how others think, you should also take a look at what the true hardliners have to say. Start with the Heartland Institute, which proudly proclaims itself to be “the world’s most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change.” If that isn’t enough, here is a list of some other prominent denialist websites.
Once you have done your homework, it is time to ask your conservative officemate or brother-in-law to join you for a cup of coffee and conversation.
This post is an edited version of a talk presented to the Cracker Barrel discussion group in Northport, MI. Follow this link to view or download a slideshow version. The last two slides include a list of links and further readings.
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