In 2013, an unlikely alliance challenged Georgia's Republican utility commission to get more of its energy from solar power: The Sierra Club and The Tea Party. The two groups called their coalition The Green Tea Party, and have been staunch advocates for solar throughout the state ever since.
The Sierra Club threw their hat into the ring for the pro-environmental benefits of solar electricity. The Tea Party had slightly different motives, as Debbie Dooley, a cofounder of the Atlanta Tea Party wrote in Grist at the time: “The premise is simple: Those who believe in the free market need to reexamine the way our country produces energy. Giant utility monopolies deserve at least some competition, and consumers should have a choice.”
On the issue of global warming, the groups simply agreed to disagree. “That’s something we don’t get involved in,” Dooley told The New Yorker in 2015. “If you mention climate change, [the Tea Party members are] going to tune you out.”
In the U.S., the right and left still hold very different views about global warming. The most recent survey data on Americans' views on climate change—published this week by the Yale Program on Climate Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change—found that 73 percent of all registered voters think that global warming is happening and 59 percent think it’s caused mostly by human activities. But look closer, along party lines, and a wide valley emerges between Republicans and Democrats.
While 95 percent of the most liberal Democrats think global warming is happening, only 41 percent of the most conservative Republicans do. Just one in four conservative Republicans think that global warming is mostly human-caused. Similarly, about one in four conservative Republicans said they were worried about global warming, and only 22 percent of all Republicans think that global warming should be a high or very high priority for federal lawmakers.
But, as in Georgia, there is one place where the gap between Republicans and Democrats gets much smaller: renewable and clean energy. On this topic, the number of Republicans in support jumps significantly: 77 percent of Republicans agree with funding more research into renewable energy sources and 79 percent of Republicans are behind generating renewable energy, like solar and wind. Seventy percent support tax rebates for people who purchase energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels. Even half of people who consider themselves conservative Republicans support those ideas.
If focusing on energy could engender a friendly collaboration between the Tea Party and the Sierra Club, could this strategy work on a larger scale? What if we stop talking about climate change, and start talking about renewable energy instead?
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Anthony Leiserowitz, the Director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, said the latest survey mirrors previous results. In December 2018, the Climate Communication team found that almost two out of three conservative Republicans supported their state producing all if its electricity from clean, renewable sources by 2050. And this support is rising: Between 2013 and 2018, conservative Republican support for renewable energy in general increased from 50 to 80 percent. This was true even in places with thriving oil and coal industries like North Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Wyoming, and West Virginia.
Renewable energy could be an effective place to zero in on climate change communication, an issue that can feel hopelessly polarized, said Ed Maibach, a communication scientist at George Mason University, and collaborator on the surveys.
“I feel that the voices in American society who desperately want to see climate solutions would be well advised to actually back off 'climate solutions' and talk about other solutions with conservatives," he said.
It could be a challenging concept for activists, especially when a common approach is to emphasize the evidence, the way the Greta Thunberg consistently references the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, the international scientific consensus on human-caused climate change.
But the tactic Maibach suggests lines up with research showing that when you want people to take action on climate change, that isn't necessarily the best messaging. For example, a recent study found that framing climate change action to evangelicals as saving "God’s creation” was more impactful than scientific or environmental arguments.
“The most impactful strategy, to get the broadest actions for adults, is to not even talk about climate change as the reason for change,” agreed Reuven Sussman, a social and environmental psychologist at the nonprofit, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, and the co-chair of the annual Behavior, Energy and Climate Change conference. “Give them a different reason.”
Sussman points to health, comfort, saving money, autonomy in energy choices, or national security, as motivating factors that could actually lead to pro-environmental behavior.
It all comes down to aligning with a person's underlying values, Leiserowitz said. Those values predict a person's views on climate change more than political party affiliation.
People with egalitarian values, which progressives tend to have, think there’s too much discrimination in society, that the government should be trying to eradicate poverty, and that the inequities of wealth is a major source of conflict. Having these values is associated with being the most alarmed about climate change.
Those who align more with individualism, as conservatives are, are instead concerned with individual liberty, freedom, and autonomy, which is usually conceived through anti-government opinions, lower taxation, and lower regulation. Valuing individualism is associated with less concern about climate change and its various solutions.
“This is an argument that goes back to the founding of this country. What is the proper role of the government in a society of free individuals?” Leiserowitz said. “These are minefields that have been laid down decades before climate change comes along as an issue in public consciousness.”
We already have examples of what happens when climate policies get entangled with these values. The Green New Deal actually had broad support among Democrat and Republicans when it was first introduced at the beginning of 2019. That's because the policy's goals weren't described in political terms but as "getting the nation’s energy from renewables instead of fossil fuels, investing in 'green' technology research, and providing training for 'green' jobs," Leiserowitz said.
It's only when conservative media started to heavily cover the Green New Deal as a Democratic policy that conservative opinion shifted. Among Republicans who watch Fox News, support for the Green New Deal dropped from 57 to 32 percent over the course of four months.
“Right now, there’s no way for conservatives to want or agree to certain actions because they become liberal issues,” Sussman said. “I think in many ways, the best thing to do is let conservatives find their own way to want to take action.”
The climate crisis is just that, a crisis. But if we hold out on taking baby steps until everyone agrees it's a crisis, then it might really be too late. The most fundamental thing we need to do, Maibach said, is to get going on transitioning to green energy. “The impacts are becoming increasingly dire and the opportunity to do something about it is becoming increasingly slim, so let’s get the job done," he said. "Do you want to be right, or do you want to be effective?"
While focusing the discussion instead only on renewable energy could be incredibly effective for short-term action, Leiserowitz and Maibach acknowledge it's not a long-term solution. At some point soon, we will have to start talking about climate change again, and not just renewable energy, Leiserowitz said.
Yet he recognizes that there are lots of cities and communities that need wins right now: in lowering emissions, boosting bipartisan morale, and gaining momentum. Pushing for clean energy could help get the ball rolling between opposing groups who think they could never work with one another. Alex Bozmoski, the managing director of republicEn.org, a grassroots community of environmentalist conservatives and libertarians, said that over the course of 500 events with conservatives in the last five years, he's found innovation around renewable energy to be great launching points.
After talking about that first, "it's a lot easier to have a conversation about the science and scale of the climate threat after disabusing the notion that all emission-reducing policies violate a conservative worldview,” Bozmoski said. "Incremental now, bigger soon, perfect never."
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