We Need to Get Better at Talking to Republicans About Climate Change

The first step is to scale back talk of the apocalypse.

Jun 2 2017, 7:00pm

Photos via White House and NASA

Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, announced officially on Thursday, will have many negative consequences, not all of which concern CO2 pollution. In fact, it's primarily a bit of "America first" theater—an act of anti-diplomacy that most Americans disagree with. It will likely hurt the US's standing in the global community and turn China into a green energy leader. It could lead to other countries imposing carbon tariffs on the US. And it codifies Trump's already clear intention to reverse any attempts by the federal government to fight climate change.

Under Barack Obama, the US promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025—but that pledge was already at risk in March, when Trump delivered an executive order that, somewhat vaguely, told the EPA to gut Obama's Clean Power Plan. (The CPP remains officially in place for now.) Experts like Stanford's Robert Jackson were already warning the US back in February that the country wasn't going to meet its goals; if the CPP is successfully scrapped, those goals become practically impossible.

So clearly, even if Trump had decided to remain in the Paris agreement, there would be a lot of work to be done. Yes, that means more incremental steps and green posturing. Local and state governments will now impose their own emission standards in the absence of federal action. Half of the Fortune 500 list of companies plan to invest in clean energy, and burn less carbon. Also, in a fun but benign act of rebellion, all these entities are drafting a proposal for the United Nations that would make some cities, states, and companies a party to the agreement regardless of the US withdrawal.

But while all this stuff no doubt makes Al Gore smile, it remains incumbent on everyone who cares about this issue to find ways to convert the people who—somewhat unbelievably, at this point—don't think that climate change is real, caused by humans, and a severe problem.

Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes has done a lot of work about the challenges involved in convincing people to care about climate change. Some of them you've probably heard before: The consequences of a warmer planet seem far off to some people (even though they're here now), and of course political tribalism is in the mix as well. But the issue he cites that seems most relevant at this moment is the obstacle he calls "doom." As Stoknes said in a 2015 interview, "If you overuse fear-inducing imagery, what you get is fear and guilt in people, and this makes people more passive, which counteracts engagement."

There was a lot of fear-inducing imagery in the wake of Trump's Paris decision. On Twitter, people (sometimes half-jokingly) invoked the literal apocalypse. My inbox is currently full of very grave press releases from environmental NGOs, like one from the Natural Resources Defense Council claiming that Trump has now "abandoned our children to climate catastrophe." That's not to single the NRDC out—that's simply where the discourse was at on Thursday.

To be sure, we shouldn't underestimate the consequences of Trump's disastrous climate policies. But overreacting to the Paris decision may actually hurt attempts to persuade Republicans that climate change is a real problem.

"The idea that US participation in this one agreement is the critical thing that will make or break climate action over the century is a little unhinged," said Joseph Majkut, director of climate science at the libertarian-leaning Niskanen Center, a think tank that advocates for action on climate change. Part of Majkut's job is to explain the need for action on climate change to free-market-minded people, often Republican politicians. In other words, he's on the frontline in this war.

Watch: The hidden impacts of climate change

The good news for people like Majkut is that there are signs that this battle can be won. Outright climate change denial—Trump's preferred brand, to be clear—seems to be on the decline. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and former Exxon CEO and now secretary of state Rex Tillerson think climate change is real and caused by humans. They were likely key voices in the White House advising Trump to remain in the agreement.

Though they failed to convince Trump, Perry and Tillerson's views show that the GOP is anything but unified when it comes to climate change inaction. According to a survey last year by Gallup, a growing majority of Americans—including Republicans—are increasingly worried about climate change. A group of former Republican officials has begun advocating for a carbon tax.

So how should we nudge more right-wingers to embrace action on climate change? I put this question to the Niskanen Center's Majkut and in response, he described his talking points to me on Paris:

This isn't going to have its intended effects. Pulling out of the Paris Climate Deal doesn't do anything to make coal more favorable. It doesn't do anything to release the obligation under the Clean Air Act, for the US government to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. And it doesn't do anything about the political inaccessibility of having no plan on climate.

Notice he doesn't mention the apocalypse.

The other thing we're up against is an exceedingly noisy contingent of climate news gadflies who don't acknowledge that climate science, like all science, is constantly evolving, and just crow as loudly as they can about every error. Predictions are just that—predictions—and often have to be altered, like in 2012 when scientists learned on one hand that their estimates on climate change had been too conservative, and that certain glaciers were melting more slowly than they had anticipated. Both of those things can be true; neither negates the simple fact that climate change is real and manmade.

Still, climate skeptic bloggers like Anthony Watts, as well as more legitimate figures in other fields of science like Freeman Dyson, often zero in on those seemingly contradictory findings as evidence that climate change itself is uncertain. They'll tell you climate hawks (or "climate alarmists") are hanging their arguments on unsettled facts. Bloggers like Watts and his readers are, without a doubt, the most difficult people to sway, but one sure way to make them roll their eyes—or even laugh at you—is to describe everything in hyperbolic terms and heavy-handed apocalypse references.

So, acknowledging that details concerning climate change have to be revised in light of new information, the two main points will never change: 1) Over time, human emissions of greenhouse gasses have caused the Earth to get hotter, and 2) gosh darn it we just can't seem to stop emitting them.

It feels stupid and wrong to say everyone needs to calm down about climate change when it's easily one of the scariest things in the world. Reading about the consequences that will hit us in 2100 or 2500 if we don't shape up might very understandably lead to pants-wetting. But as we continue down this road under Trump, let's not lose sight of the need to convert climate skeptics into climate hawks. If you take this issue seriously, that means keeping a clear head, cracking the books, and steering clear of any "the end is nigh" street preaching.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.

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