When it comes to climate change, US conservatives inhabit a unique position, as part of the only major political party in the democratic world to reject the legitimacy of climate science and any domestic policy or international agreement meant to address it. Instead, the GOP is working actively to increase production and consumption of fossil fuels and to slow the transition to renewable energy.
How can conservatives be moved on climate change?
I recently heard a podcast that helped me order my thoughts on this perennial debate. It was Political Research Digest, a weekly 15-minute research round-up hosted by Michigan State University political scientist Matt Grossman for the Niskanen Center. (Grossman is the author of Asymmetric Politics, a crucial text for understanding American political parties. The podcast is nerdy and good.)
In the third episode, Grossman takes a look at some recent literature on climate change opinion and how, if at all, it can be shifted among conservatives.
It begins well, with an excellent lay of the land. But the discussion of how to move forward goes off course, in a very familiar way. It stops short of contemplating the uncomfortable but increasingly likely possibility that persuading conservatives on this subject has become impossible, and what that might mean for those concerned about the looming dangers of climate change.
Let’s start with a look a few basic facts about public opinion on climate.
Public concern about climate change hasn’t risen much, but it has polarized
The first part of the episode is about a new literature review on climate change opinion in Annual Review of Political Science. Patrick Egan and Megan Mullin, of New York and Duke Universities respectively, survey a ton of recent research on the subject and pull out a few conclusions.
Grossman has Mullin on to discuss it and she’s great, emphasizing lots of important stuff that journalists writing in this area often miss. Here are a few conclusions drawn from the review:
- There has been an increase in general climate change awareness over the past few decades, but very little increase in understanding of how it works (that humans are the primary cause is believed by fewer than half of Americans, still) or intensity of concern (almost no voters rank climate change among their top concerns).
- Aggregate opinion has remained relatively stable, but underneath, there has been sharp and ongoing partisan polarization, which continues today. (See this post for more on that.)
- Though “striking in the case of climate change,” this polarization is part of a larger trend in the US. Everything has been swept up in it; climate is not separate or unique.
- Opinion polls show something of a spike in concern about climate in 2016 to 2017, but almost all the movement has come from Democrats; it’s not yet clear whether it will last.
- “The conventional wisdom gets the causal arrow backwards,” says Mullin. People don’t develop political and policy opinions based on an assessment of climate science. They assess climate science based on preexisting political and policy opinions. That’s why trying to change minds with science-based arguments is so rarely effective.
As Mullin says, there is no sign on the horizon that this polarization — either generally or on climate change — is going to abate any time soon. She is skeptical that a sweeping change in public opinion will come along and force politicians of both parties to join together and pass national legislation.
So far, so good. (Well, “good.”) The question is, where do we go from here?
At this point, to my great frustration, the discussion inevitably turns to messaging — to what magic combinations of words can change conservative minds. I have been watching variants of these discussions for over a decade, as national security, adaptation, green jobs, and geoengineering have been serially hyped as the key to conservative hearts on climate change. (None, obviously, have worked.)
The pivot to messaging, to mass persuasion, hinges on two important hidden premises. Grossman and Mullin touch on them glancingly ... but then Grossman turns the discussion to a different kind of research — the wrong kind, in this author’s humble opinion.
Let’s follow along and then we’ll double back.
Magic words only work in isolation
The next bit of research Grossman highlights is by a team of researchers led by Graham Dixon of Ohio State University, published in June in the journal Science Communication.
Dixon’s team found that, in surveys, conservative opinion on climate solutions could not be moved by scientific or religious messages, but it could be nudged in a positive direction by messages that stressed “free market solutions.”
Core values, not science, are what drive conservative opposition, Dixon tells Grossman, and “free markets” are a core value for conservatives. They view climate policy as a threat to free markets, which is the real reason they reject climate science, so messaging should assuage those fears.
This is wrong.
1) First, the idea that free markets are a core value of today’s US conservatives should provoke only laughter. If Donald Trump’s campaign and victory taught us nothing else, it is that the conservative base’s fealty to open markets is paper thin. Trump promised trade barriers, tariffs, and walls, to the gaping consternation of the conservative monied class, and paid no penalty at all.
And well before Trump, it was clear that “free markets” are, in political practice, a slogan, not a core value. The slogan is a weapon to be deployed against policies that favor conservative’s enemies, but never against their friends, just as deficits are used to scold Democrats who want to spend money but never Republicans who want to cut taxes.
Trump’s Department of Energy is vigorously working to dump subsidies on coal companies as we speak, to take but one example, and the Republican rank and file does not seem particularly put out by it. Nor do they seem moved by the earnest arguments of libertarians that unregulated pollution amounts to a market-distorting subsidy, a violation of free market principles.
Conservatives, like everyone with any power in US politics, support policies that help people and interests they favor and oppose policies that help people and interests they don’t favor. In truth, no one outside of DC think tanks values free (i.e., unregulated) markets as such, in any consistent way.
Insofar as the Republican base has revealed core values, they seem to consist almost entirely in hostility to the Other — liberals and Democrats above all, along with the minorities, immigrants, professors, and celebrities they represent.
2) More importantly, opinions aren’t formed in a vacuum, they’re formed in life, and in life, one is always surrounded by tribes enforcing worldviews in millions of explicit and implicit ways. Knowledge and motivation are social phenomena, not individual phenomena. Even if conservatives could be convinced of “free market” solutions to climate change, show me more than a handful of conservatives willing to prioritize their alleged fealty to free markets over the good opinion of their peers and tribal leaders. Show me a GOP politician willing to put their alleged fealty to free markets over the good opinion of their constituents and their chances of reelection.
For climate campaigners, delivering “free market” messages on climate change in the social context where the conservative base lives — surrounded by an increasingly impenetrable and message-coordinated media bubble — is like blowing spitwads into a hurricane.
Words do not have magic powers and clever messages cannot do the work of politics. Social forces, not “messages,” shape political engagement.
3) Most importantly of all, we must note that it’s not true that climate solutions necessarily involve violence to free market principles. A market in which some participants are allowed to degrade the planet for all future generations without cost is not “free” by any sane definition of that term. If you piss all over my leg, I’m not abridging your freedom by asking you to pay for new pants.
So, if it’s not true that climate solutions necessarily violate the allegedly core conservative principle of free markets ... who told them that? Why do the conservative masses think that? How have they all gravitated toward the facially odd position that the ongoing health of fossil fuel companies is the only way to secure American liberty?
Well, that brings us back to our hidden premises. As promised, let’s double back.
Elites shape opinion, only elites can change it
Say we accept that the majority of hardcore conservatives have negative opinions on climate change, and they see those opinions as reflective of deep ideological values. What should be done about it?
There are two hidden premises that typically inform such discussions.
The first is that the only sensible response is to persuade all those conservatives. That’s why the focus inevitably turns to messaging and “framing,” the endless search for the right tone of voice, the right combination of arguments, the right mix of facts, stories, and imagery, to move the conservative mind. That’s what so many thousands of hours of effort have gone toward over the last decades.
But it’s backward, as Mullin says. Assessments of science follow political opinions, they do not precede them.
And how are political opinions shaped in the real world?
Well, as I’ve written many times, public opinion is not some great enduring mystery. There’s a decent consensus in the social sciences on what most moves public opinion: elite cues.
And so it is with climate change. Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle has been all over this for years — see, e.g., this recent paper with McGill’s Jason Carmichael. Science-based educational campaigns have virtually no effect on climate opinion, they found. Weather events and economic swings have some temporary effects. What moves the needle are elite cues.
That’s just a fancy way of saying that people care more about something when they see it around them, when they read it in the newspaper, see it on TV, hear politicians discussing it, see activists in the streets marching about it, watch celebrities pretending to care about it. Those are all elite cues.
That’s the stuff that shapes ordinary people’s opinions, on all sides of the political spectrum. Very few individuals have the time and wherewithal to investigate the world’s woes independently. They absorb the values and worldviews of their tribes.
Conservatives think climate change is a communist plot because that’s what the right’s elites have told them.
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012
I don't believe Hurricane Harvey is God's punishment for Houston electing a lesbian mayor. But that is more credible than "climate change." https://t.co/K7d7mopY5Q— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) August 29, 2017
EPA administrator Scott Pruitt said that CO2 emitted by human activity is not the key cause of climate change. https://t.co/kQZP92JnB1— NRDC (@NRDC) March 19, 2017
All the elite cues that surround conservatives in their epistemic bubble reinforce this message: Climate change science is bogus and all proposed climate solutions are plots to grow the size of government and take your money.
The good news is that if conservative elite opinion swung around on climate change, conservative mass opinion would swing easily behind. Nobody really cares about “issues” like this beyond how they inform social identity anyway. Very few people beyond the Heritage Foundation have any independent commitment to flat-earthism on climate.
The bad news is that no one knows how to persuade conservative elites to stop lying to their tribe about climate change.
For one thing, fossil fuel companies play an enormous role in funding the party (and climate denying “think tanks”); the material interests of politicians like Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke are bound up in the good graces of fossil fuel executives. What counterbalancing force is there, with the power to nullify or even diminish that influence?
For another, conservative media elites profit the more they work their audiences into a frenzy of paranoia, fear, and loathing toward the left. Bashing on everything the left does is good for clicks and viewers. It is literally money in their pockets. What counterbalancing force is there, with the power to bring about bipartisanship on this one issue?
Honestly, persuading conservative elites seems almost as futile as persuading the conservative masses. Almost all their tangible incentives point the other way.
It might seem hopeless. But that brings us to the second hidden premise.
If it’s a fight, not a debate, then intensity is what matters
The second premise, deeper and more foundational, is that politics works through agreement — that getting everyone on the same page is a prerequisite of political progress. We must “meet in the middle.” Especially among US center-left elites, this belief is practically preverbal, a truism.
But history, especially recent history, contains much evidence to the contrary. Just about every substantial policy shift in the US in the past 20 years has been a matter of one side overwhelming the other — of conflict, not consensus. Some were “bipartisan” in the sense that a few legislators crossed the aisle, but partisan unity is more and more the rule in US politics. We have “weak parties and strong partisanship,” as political scientist Julia Azari puts it, which makes substantial compromise more and more difficult.
“Pundits who say that ‘nothing can get done without bipartisan support’,” write Steven Teles, Heather Hurlburt, and Mark Schmitt in one of my favorite essays on polarization, “no longer have the evidence on their side.” In fact, that increasingly looks like the only way anything ever gets done.
So what would a less-persuading-more-fighting strategy look like?
There’s also this deliberative, “why can’t we all get along” view of politics lurking under the surface. Instead of, say, agonism: https://t.co/FjOUlqyxxN— Joseph Henderson (@josephenderson) November 8, 2017
Agonism (thanks to Henderson, a climate-focused social scientist, for the tweet tip) is the view that in some contexts and within limits, political conflict is good. Sometimes conflict clarifies, educates, and leads to progress.
Sometimes the right strategy is to grab and own an issue, to exclude (not invite) the other party, to tie the issue to core coalition values and use the intensity to increase the political power of the coalition.
That’s what the right did with national security during the Cold War. They claimed the issue, associated themselves with it, commanded public trust on it, and — crucially — worked overtime to exclude the left from it, to make Democrats look weak and feckless. They didn’t beg Democrats to agree with their hawkishness. They dared them to disagree.
They made a fight of it, and they won. That’s why Democrats’ unofficial slogan for much of the ‘90s and early ‘00s was, “Hey, We’re Tough Too!”
The left has never been as good at unified aggression and probably never will be, for reasons Grossman’s book explains well.
But it may be time to face the fact that there is no magic message, no persuasive strategy, that can get us out of this mess. There’s no persuading the conservative base without conservative elites and there’s no persuading conservative elites as long as their material interests point the wrong direction.
It may just be that we’re not all going to get along — that the only way to move forward on this is to fight it out.
If that’s true, then what matters most on the left is not the breadth of agreement, but the depth. It is intensity that wins political battles. The only way Democrats can achieve progress on this is to intensify the fight.
Tepid “free market” messages, forever hoping to win over an unwinnable right, won’t do that. They do nothing to inspire those who already care and are primed for action.
Figuring out endless ways to avoid saying the words “climate change” won’t do that. Gimmicks don’t persuade or inspire; visible passion and conviction do.
For Democrats, raising intensity would mean making it a fight, staking a claim, defining the core values involved, telling vivid stories with heroes and villains and repeating them frequently. It would mean making climate change and clean energy tier-one priorities — organizing around them, talking about them at every opportunity, pushing them into the news and popular culture.
It would mean, rather than begging Republicans for assent or small scraps of policy assistance, doing everything possible to publicize their intransigence and make it core to their identity. Tie it around their necks every time a microphone appears; make them own it.
Reality still matters. What we have in the US is not a “difference of opinion” about climate change, it’s conservatives being mistaken about some very basic facts. They’re mistaken because they’ve been lied to and misled by leaders and influencers within their own tribe.
That’s the situation. But it’s not stable. The weather is only getting worse, young people are only getting more engaged, and clean energy is only getting cheaper. Climate change and clean energy will be winning issues in the long term.
Why not claim and own them while it’s still possible? Then the GOP’s motto in the 2020s can be: “Hey, We Like Clean Energy Too!”
In reality, Democrats probably don’t have the wherewithal to mount that kind of fight. But that’s the only thing that has a chance of breaking the stalemate. The quest to persuade US conservatives on climate change has been extraordinarily long, vigorous, and well-documented. It has also been largely fruitless. Perhaps it’s time for a little agonism.