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Don’t bother waiting for conservatives to come around on climate change

A new report examines the climate right. It doesn’t find much.

US conservatives, to put it mildly, are not much help on climate policy. For decades, they’ve denied the validity of climate change science and waged a well-funded campaign to sow doubt and fear about the facts and about the people and organizations who emerged as climate advocates.

Though old-fashioned denial of climate change remains popular among the hardcore base (and President Trump), party elites are now beginning to squirm a bit and admit that “the climate is changing.”

But with a few exceptions — a bipartisan state bill here, a few tax credits there — Republicans have opposed all substantial climate and clean energy policy for decades. There was a period in the late 2000s when John McCain garnered press for backing a cap-and-trade bill, but it never had many votes in his caucus and never came within a mile of getting a vote on the floor. Then Barack Obama was elected, the right went into full backlash mode, and it’s been an unbroken wall of opposition since.

Is there any hope of that changing? Is there any hope that a movement toward real climate policy could take root in the Republican Party? That they could come up with something more serious than the farcical recent Green Real Deal?

That is a subject of intense interest at the moment, not least among the lonely souls within the Republican Party attempting to build such a movement.

President Donald Trump Joins Senate Republicans For Their Weekly Policy Luncheon
Not obviously fertile territory for climate policy.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Happily, this week brought us a study of those very questions, from the New Models of Policy Change program (at the think tank New America) and Invest America, a cross-partisan political consultancy. It is a close examination of the state of conservative environmentalism in the US: its groups, initiatives, funders, and prospects. It was authored by New America’s Heather Hurlburt and Elena Souris and Invest America’s Kahlil Byrd, a conservative policy entrepreneur who has access to key players.

It is written for, and about, conservative environmentalists, so it strives to keep a positive tone and offer constructive suggestions on how to engage on climate policy. But it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to find a grim tale. The state of the climate right is ... not good.

I am on record as a pessimist about constructive conservative engagement on climate change. In fact, I’m cited in the paper as a pessimist! And readers, I’ll be honest: Nothing I read in the report makes me any more optimistic. In fact, reading it enforced my sense that there will be no serious help coming from the right anytime soon.

In this post, I will lay out my reasons for thinking so, in a veritable buffet of pessimism: short-term, midterm, and long-term.

It’s a pretty heavy post, its implications are not pleasant, and I hope I am wrong. I’m not completely gloomy — I think I could be proven wrong, if the left takes a more proactive approach in coming years — but it is always best to be clear-eyed about the political landscape, and right now, the landscape is not friendly. So let’s sail these choppy waters together.

Short term: the climate right is fragmented and underfunded

The organizations on the right attempting to advance climate solutions (there’s an exhaustive list in the report) do not add up to much. They are facing a range of enormous challenges, first among them an intensely partisan environment. There’s not much coordination among them and no central clearinghouse of information or planning. No one is doing what ALEC (the group pushing conservative policy at the state level) is doing for anti-climate forces, i.e., writing sample legislation and running campaigns.

And the funding situation is dismal:

There are only two significant Republican funders in the sector: Jay Faison and Trammell Crow. This community is not growing, which has led to a significant and steady deficit in funding. Given this macro-funding environment, there is little hope that there will be a change in the funder community.

At this point, investing in climate-focused conservative groups is a huge risk for funders, with not much promise of payoff. Consequently, “many of these organizations are small and relatively weak,” says the report. “They struggle to rise in a sector with little bipartisan spirit and a lack of steady financing.”

jay faison
Jay Faison.

Following Faison, the report roughly divides the groups into three approaches:

  • The “associations approach” attempts to identify existing conservative identities, subgroups like veterans or Catholics, that might be persuadable on climate. None of these efforts have succeeded on any appreciable scale.
  • The “libertarian approach” pitches climate solutions amenable to fiscal conservatives, like carbon “tax and dividend” systems that don’t grow the size of government. Despite the boundless faith many have invested in this approach, it hasn’t yielded much either.
  • The “innovation” approach seeks to narrow in on climate policies that overlap with existing conservative interests, which amount, as I wrote in this post, to subsidies for fossil fuel companies, for their research on how we can keep burning fossil fuels. Oh, and nuclear.

The backers of this third approach, like Faison’s ClearPath, have had some limited success. At least those Republicans who feel pressured to say something constructive now seem to be adopting their rhetoric. This is probably the path mainstream Republican policy will take as it backs away from denial. Such as it is.

And there have been scattered victories for climate conservatives at the state level. But they have been idiosyncratic and highly dependent on circumstances, and have yielded little in the way of long-term trust- or institution-building.

All in all, the report concludes bluntly, “we find that the current actors in the conservative environmental movement are not strong enough to make serious inroads at a national level.”

So that’s the short term.

Midterm: the right has a partisan message discipline machine the left lacks

Perhaps because it is written for conservatives, the report is oddly coy about the overall partisan landscape of climate change. But partisan status is, in fact, an almost infallible guide to where climate progress is possible. To wit, it is possible where Democrats take power. That’s what happened in California, Washington, New York, Hawaii, New Mexico — Democrats took power and made progress.

Where bipartisan progress is possible is just where Democrats have almost all the power but need a few Republican votes.

It’s Democrats who are taking action and Democratic voters who are showing the biggest spikes of concern over climate change. It is Democrats who almost unanimously support renewable energy, Democrats who support carbon taxes and clean energy standards and Green New Deals and just about anything else that deals with climate change.

Renewables poll
From a recent poll.
Javier Zarracina/Change Research

While climate change itself is entirely polarized, the report cites research showing that there are a few phrases or approaches that still don’t draw mass conservative opposition. “Innovation” still tickles their fancy, and they still largely like clean energy, both renewables and nuclear.

The report also divides conservatives into subcategories and suggests that some of them, like the “New Era Enterprisers” or the “Market Skeptic Republicans,” might be especially amenable to targeted climate messages. As long as advocates avoid “belief-based messages” — i.e., whether climate change is happening — and focus on “solutions-based messages,” some of these subgroups could, maybe, perhaps, someday, be brought along.

But here we glimpse, between the lines, an enormous asymmetry between left and right in American politics.

The left has an army of people in universities, think tanks, and consultancies, examining public opinion using all the latest tools, producing the most sophisticated reports. The basic model of savvy “realism” on the center left is to study the shape of public opinion, with all its subcategories, and react to it.

Meanwhile, the right has an army of people on cable news, the radio, and Facebook dedicated to shaping public opinion, stoking it, dragging it rightward. Not investigating it, not charting it, not reacting to it — creating it.

The left’s technocrats are targeting values-based messages at New Era Enterprisers while the right is out building full-fledged identities, letting conservatives know what they’re supposed to think.

Imagine, if you will, that “innovation” really started taking off and becoming the basis for bipartisan climate policy. Or imagine that New Era Enterprisers really started coalescing around climate action. Imagine that earnest conservative advocacy groups succeeded in generating some small movement, among some part of the GOP, toward some kind of climate action.

If Fox didn’t like it — and Fox wouldn’t, because Fox is still funded by the big-money conservatives whose interests are bound up with fossil fuels — Fox would kill it. Immediately. End of story. Sad trumpet.

And it wouldn’t be hard. All they would have to do is make up some scary story about how it, whatever “it” is, is socialism, or some variety of Other, and then repeat that story, over and over, for a week or two. Voila: conservatives would turn against ... whatever it is. The green shoots would be crushed.

No climate group(s), on the left or right, can do the same. It’s not that they lack clever messages, carefully tested by the best social scientists. They don’t lack information or ideas or facility with language. They lack power. Power is what it takes to shape public opinion — the power and money to maintain multiple direct channels to voters, blasting a unified message at all times.

I wrote a post the other day on how Fox (or rather, right-wing media generally) has blitzed the Green New Deal, uniting the right against it even as the left remains divided and diffident.

Along the same lines, take a look at this study from Navigator Research. It found that 34 percent of Americans watch Fox News at least a few times a month. Those who do operate with a very different set of facts than those who don’t.

On climate change, “non-Fox News watching Republicans are twice as likely as other Republicans to believe in human-caused climate change.”

fox news poll Navigator Research

It’s the same on virtually every issue: Fox News viewers are 10 to 20 points to the right of their non-Fox-watching counterparts, in both parties. Conservative media is a tool built to drag opinion, among conservatives and the polity generally, to the right.

It ensures that no matter the current political battle, whether it’s NFL players kneeling, Brett Kavanaugh getting on the bench, or cap and trade, the right-wing base is unified and furious. The left has no such machine (and even if it did, it is too demographically and economically heterogeneous to maintain a simple common narrative). No matter how broadly supported the left’s tax, health, or climate policies, it can rarely match the right’s depth of intensity. And in politics, intensity wins.

My point in all of this is simply that, no matter what small gaps may be visible in the wall of Republican opposition on climate policy now, it’s easy enough for the right to shore them up. Fox has the trust of, and direct access to, the right base in a way that no institution on the left can match. All the values-based messages in the world won’t matter if Fox can drown them out.

So that’s the midterm.

Long term: climate change is intrinsically insulting to conservative values

Most people assume that Republicans will eventually have to come around on climate change, if only for electoral reasons. Young people are turning against them: A recent national poll of 18- to 29-year-olds found that “45 percent of young Americans — including 50 percent of those likely to vote — agreed climate change is ‘a crisis and demands urgent action’.”

And I suppose that on some time horizon, that is true. Climate change certainly isn’t going away and it’s a much higher-stakes issue for young people.

But I would add a note of caution to this kind of triumphalism.

A great deal of research has gone into examining the deeper differences between liberals and conservatives, the differences that stretch beyond ideology into temperament, psychology, and neurology. One reason those differences are salient at the moment is that Americans have been sorting not only by race, income, and ideology, but even by personality.

The US polity has divided into geographic camps, people who live around and associate with people like themselves, so distanced from the other camps that dialogue becomes difficult. (Fascinatingly, as Will Wilkinson at the Niskanen Center has written, the core dividing line seems to be population density. As you move out from center cities and population grows more sparse, at a certain level of density, an area flips from blue to red. This holds true across regions of the country. Wild.)

the density crossover
The crossover point in population density — roughly 800 people per square mile — where red flips to blue.
Dave Troy

One difference that comes up again and again, which social scientists have come to see as the core distinction between liberal and conservative temperaments, has to do with what psychologists call “openness to experience” (one of the “big five” personality traits). To the extent someone scores highly on this trait, they are more likely to be liberal.

This can be simplified even further, since that trait is highly correlated with sensitivity to fear. The more sensitive someone is to negative or threatening stimuli — even, experiments have found, negative stimuli flashed by too fast for the conscious mind to register — the more likely that person is to prize order, tidiness, predictability, and routine. In other words, the more sensitive someone is to fear, the less open they are to new experiences, the more they dislike change, and the more likely they are to be a conservative. (Ezra Klein rounds up some of the growing evidence for this thesis in this post.)

There’s a reason Obama won on hope and change while Trump won on going back. There’s a reason America’s rapid demographic changes are celebrated on the left and viewed with horror on the right.

The New America report takes note of this research and these differences in moral values, citing moral foundations theory, made famous by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. It cites a study out of Cornell that concludes that while liberal climate hawks are animated by compassion and fairness, “the moral foundation of purity (sanctity/degradation) [is] a potentially useful frame for conservatives.”

It also cites a study out of the University of Cologne that found that “conservatives are more responsive to climate messages rooted in the past, while liberals were more responsive to forward-looking climate change messages.”

This is more or less what you’d expect: Those who fear change, prize order, and pine for an imagined past without all the troubling present-day changes — i.e., conservatives — will be more open to messages emphasizing the maintenance of purity and glories of the past.

The New America researchers conclude, as many climate advocates have over the years: Well, okay, climate hawks need to craft climate messages that appeal to those values.

But hold on. Maybe the facts of climate change can’t be squeezed into just any values frame we like. Maybe global warming is not indefinitely malleable. Maybe it has a certain intrinsic character.

The tragic but inescapable fact at the core of climate change is that we are in an era of loss. The stable weather patterns, fertile soil, and biodiversity enjoyed by our ancestors — the biophysical status quo — is going away, whether we like it or not. It’s too late to save it.

The period ahead for our species is one of rapid change. There will be rapid changes in weather, agriculture, settlement patterns, migration, and conflict due to global warming. There will also, one hopes, be rapid changes in the way humans structure and power their civilizations, shifting to a model that does not produce greenhouse gases. If those latter changes don’t take place, the former changes will be even more rapid, terrible, and endless.

That pure, mythic past conservatives prize? It is gone, receding ever further in the rearview mirror. We already made that decision with our inaction.

Photo of a healthy and unhealthy fire coral
Bleached coral from climate change.
The Ocean Agency/XL Catlin Seaview Survey/Richard Vevers

There are two ways to communicate about this to conservatives.

You can be honest, which is to say, you can tell them that everything they know is going to change in coming years and the best we can do is try to stick together and minimize the damage. You can tell them to embrace change, to work with other countries to try to preserve what is best even as much else falls away. But that is exactly, precisely what they do not want to hear.

Alternatively, you can lie to them. You can tell them the changes are temporary and reversible. If they can just beat the nefarious liberals, immigrants can be sent home, coal jobs will come back, the oil and gas spigot can stay open, hamburgers will be served for every meal, store clerks will say “Merry Christmas,” and we can keep ourselves safe by building walls. That is very much what they want to hear.

What you can’t do is promise them that aggressive climate policy will preserve a pure environment or restore a simpler past. It just won’t. It’s a lie, and not a very convincing one, certainly not one that will hold up against a Fox onslaught. Climate change means change. No amount of framing or messaging can get around that.

The Green New Deal is an attempt to grapple with the issue honestly. It says, “We’re going to go through a huge, disruptive transition, but we’re going to make sure you have a job and health care through it.” One of the reasons the right and center left have recoiled from the GND is precisely that: It takes the scale of change seriously. The powers that be don’t want to hear that.

That resistance to change, that status quo bias? It’s one of the strongest forces in human nature, it’s concentrated on the right, and it’s not going anywhere.

So that’s the long term.

The populace needs to be made less conservative

This post has been a whole lot of pessimism, so let me end by at least gesturing in a hopeful direction.

The tendency of liberal technocrats and Democrats generally is to “play it as it lays” — to study the temperament and opinions of the public and react to them, accommodate them, appeal to them. As I said earlier, the instinct on the right is to claim them and shape them.

Climate hawks, and the left generally, need to get a little more of that latter spirit.

We know that personality traits can be pretty deeply embedded by early childhood, but we also know that which traits and dispositions are brought to the fore, individually and collectively, depends on circumstances. Crudely speaking, when people feel safe and cared for, they will be more open to extending the circle of care (that is, more liberal). When they feel anxious or threatened, they will be more inclined to draw the circle of care inward, i.e., to become more conservative.

Right-wing media is a machine for scaring older white people — i.e., for making them more conservative. A whole generation of young people has lost parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles to the Fox machine. It has dragged the political center to the right and slowed progressive reforms (like universal health care) that have been in place in other developed democracies for years. It will fight climate progress to its last breath.

So much of this.

If climate hawks want the American people to take a more open, proactive, positive-sum attitude toward the inevitable changes that lie ahead, they need to think not just about how to appeal to public sentiment as it exists, but how to change it — how to make people more open to change; how to make them more liberal.

It won’t be done through messaging, no matter how clever. It can only be done through power — the power to create institutions, ideologies, narratives, and norms that make people feel safe and cared for. When people feel safe, they will feel more ready to launch into a national transformation. And they don’t feel safe in the precarious conditions that American capitalism imposes on them, when they are one lost job or health problem away from disaster.

Climate hawks will never find adequate solutions if they simply take the grim status quo as a given. They must change America’s temperament; they must make it more liberal.

Even if it eventually finds some assistance from within the GOP, the drive to address climate change is ultimately a liberal project: It’s about drawing together in cosmopolitan global unity as a species, thinking in long-term, non-zero-sum terms, sacrificing for and helping one another, and having the confidence and curiosity to embrace change, to experiment and learn and adapt on the fly.

Those are all features of the climate project that draw on liberal personality traits. If climate hawks ever want to change the maddening, gridlocked political status quo in the US, they need to start thinking about how to bring those traits to the surface.