The Paris 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference is right around the corner. With Republican victories in the 2014 midterm elections, many political analysts are predicting that President Obama’s climate agenda is going to come under broad fire and face possible rollbacks. Indeed, during their first week in office, Republicans moved to advance legislation approving the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, despite indications that Obama will veto the bill.
Given these threats, climate activists are in the unenviable position of having to fight to avoid backsliding at a time when we need progress more than ever. One way to move the debate forward may be to broaden the coalition. Typically we think of the climate movement as comprised of progressive and moderate individuals. This being said, it may be time for the climate movement to strengthen its outreach to conservatives. Climate change has been increasingly polarized in recent years, so it’s understandable that many feel that this is a waste of time. However, social sciences research suggests that this idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds.
First, studies suggest that conservative opposition to climate change is bolstered by a sense that the only solutions to the climate crisis violate key conservative values, most notably a strong support for the free market and market-based policies. But when conservatives are presented with alternative framings of the climate issue which emphasize market-based solutions, they’re more likely to accept climate science.
You may be thinking, so what? With political polarization higher now than it’s been in decades, even if you could emphasize these solutions in the climate debate, would conservatives listen? Surprisingly, new research gives a tentative yes. Social psychology research tells us that people’s political leanings are related to their values. Conservatives highly value authority and respect for the sacred; liberals place more emphasis on equality and preventing harm. Generally speaking, when you talk to liberals in terms of liberal values, they move further to the left; the same is true in reverse for conservatives. But there are some tantalizing hints that discussing liberal issues like climate change using conservative values can move conservatives leftwards on policy. More research is needed to fully understand what’s going on here, but it’s an idea worth exploring.
I argue that action on climate change is not inherently anti-conservative. Indeed, some conservative religious groups are already seeking action on the issue, albeit from a conservative standpoint. During the 2014 election, many Floridians were surprised to learn of a pro-life group that actively lobbies Governor Rick Scott on the climate issue. Groups like the Evangelical Environmental Network describe climate change as a pro-life issue, arguing that “care for God’s creation is one of the greatest moral challenges of our time.” Strange bedfellows, perhaps, for traditionally progressive climate activists, but this is an alliance that is well worth pursuing.
Furthermore, recent events have made a bipartisan, grassroots climate alliance look more possible than we may have originally thought. First, many businesses – including investment banks – are now saying that it’s time to re-evaluate the relationship we as a society have with fossil fuels. This is a climate-conscious message grounded in economics that may grow in influence within conservative circles.
Second, Pope Francis’ anticipated encyclical on climate change has the potential to rally a large political bloc for climate action. There are 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. Almost one quarter of American adults identify as Catholic, including 164 congressional representatives. There is, of course, no guarantee that these congressional representatives will heed the Pope’s warning on the climate, but from a grassroots level the encyclical could galvanize Catholic support for the climate movement. After all, Catholics used to be a reliably Democratic bloc up until the 1960s, emerging as a conservative stronghold only in the 1980s.
Some caveats: I think it’s very, very unlikely – for a variety of reasons having to do with primaries and the political system in the United States – that we’ll see a majority of conservative politicians suddenly embrace the climate movement. Indeed, there is likely a portion of the conservative base that will never be convinced of climate change. And with an alarming percentage of Republicans firmly in the denier camp, these conservatives have their hands on the levers of power for at least another two years.
My point here is not that we are entering some golden age of compromise on the climate issue because of statements by investment firms and the Pope. Instead, I am making the argument that being more inclusive in our messaging could allow the climate movement to grow and become more bipartisan in the future. (For some excellent tips on how to do this, check out this piece by John Sutter.)
Many people would say that a truly bipartisan alliance on the climate is impossible, particularly since dramatic changes to the social and economic systems will be necessary to address the problem. I acknowledge that tackling the threat will put strains on these new relationships and it may be necessary to part ways at some point. But given the gravity of the situation, dismissing the idea of cooperation out-of-hand seems short-sighted. All social movements that draw from a broad tent of supporters encounter internal struggles. The strength that conservatives could bring to the climate movement might be enough to get us over the initial hump of inaction.
There are no national elections before the Paris 2015 climate talks. We only have a short time to rapidly decrease our carbon emissions before facing dangerous warming. We are running out of time. Action is better than inaction, and wary allies are better than enemies.