How do you tackle an important issue that you can’t even talk about?
For local officials in conservative communities, addressing the ever-more-visible impacts of climate change requires a delicate balance. Ignoring their regions’ vulnerabilities is not an option – but in many cases, neither is uttering the words “climate change.” So polarizing and politicized has that term become that it can shut down conversations before they even begin.
As is so often the case with sensitive topics, it’s all about the framing.
Avoiding Debate by Focusing on Benefits
A recent survey of 200 local governments across 11 Great Plains states asked how they are helping prevent and prepare for climate impacts. With federal climate policies in doubt, these mayors, public health professionals, county commissioners, and other officials feel an increased responsibility to take action locally.
To engage members of the community who may be doubtful or actively dismissive about climate change, the officials favored a strategy that emphasized co-benefits and common sense. For example:
- Rather than argue over the cause of climate change, focus on the need to improve the quality of our air and water
- Frame initiatives in terms of saving money, smart growth/planning, and responsible resource management
- Mention other benefits (besides carbon reduction) of climate solutions, such as providing healthier lifestyles and protecting nature
The focus on benefits has garnered support for such forward-thinking solutions as a methane-capture system on a landfill in Fargo, North Dakota. Not only is that community helping to cut greenhouse gas emissions – they’re also generating revenue by selling the methane to the local electricity company as a source of renewable energy
Convincing Conservative Leaders
Sometimes it’s the leaders themselves who need convincing. At a panel discussion on climate communications at the Feb. 16 Climate & Health Meeting in Atlanta, Jerry Taylor of the Niskanen Center explained why that’s so important.
“What drove Republican opinions over the past 20 years’ worth of data is what Republican politicians have been saying about climate,” he says. So to really move public opinion requires convincing the political elites.
Taylor has the inside track on how to talk to climate deniers: he used to be one. As a former senior fellow at the Cato Institute (a libertarian think tank), he helped write many of the arguments he is now trying to dismantle. Here are his do’s and don’ts when talking to conservative leaders.
What not to do:
Don’t talk about the need for massive socio-economic transformation. “Republicans kind of like the world we live in,” said Taylor. Climate change does require large-scale action, but the idea is to move conservatives along the action, not frighten and alienate them.
Do not overstate the certainty in play – it can undermine our credibility. “We know climate change is happening, that industrial emissions are virtually the entire driver, and that it will have significant, serious impacts,” emphasized Taylor. But, he went on to say, we have less idea of how it will play out over the next 100 years than we sometimes admit.
Talk about risk management. Here’s where the uncertainty about the severity of impacts from climate change actually works in our favor. As Taylor pointed out, “What do you do when you have a large distribution of possible outcomes? You hedge.” Republicans are perfectly capable of understanding that risks exist, and that we must address them. They can agree on that without having to decisively take a side.
Focus on co-benefits. Climate solutions mean less-polluted air and water. Quoting a 2008 campaign speech by Senator John McCain, Taylor said, “The worst that can happen if we address climate change is we give our kids a cleaner planet.”
Be open to free-market solutions. The debate between liberals and conservatives over climate is not really about the science. People tend to deny a problem exists if they don’t like the solution – so if a conservative thinks accepting climate change will require massive deindustrialization or expansion of government, they will say it’s not something we need to address. It turns out, said Taylor, “We can decarbonize this economy without causing great stress to global well-being or GDP. The perfect answer to the climate problem [is] right out of the GOP toolbox: harnessing markets and prices to reduce greenhouse gases and carbon pollution. And Republicans are perfectly positioned to put that into play.”
Many of these techniques – focusing on the benefits of solutions; leaving room for multiple points of view; avoiding doom, gloom, and finger-pointing; and above all, understanding the perspectives and priorities of your audience – our outlined in our recent guides 15 Steps to Create Effective Climate Communications and Let’s Talk Climate: Messages to Motivate Americans. Download them to learn how to engage just about anyone in a meaningful, productive discussion about climate.