Here’s a radical idea: Climate activists need to engage conservatives
I consider myself to be a radical — and I now believe that the most radical thing I can do is break out of the safety zone of left/liberal environmentalism and actively engage with conservatives.
I have spent two decades in the radical environmental movement, and I believe strongly that the crisis of climate change requires systemic changes. I am utterly convinced, from my reading of history, that these changes will only emerge from strong and outspoken political movements.
But no movement will win unless it has strength of numbers and influence. We should not delude ourselves that a highly motivated minority — what Marxists used to call the vanguard — can ever win this. The issue of climate change is far too large to be addressed without a near total commitment across society.
Yet, throughout the Anglophone world, there is a dangerous political polarization around climate change. In one particularly disturbing U.S. poll, attitudes about climate change were found to be a better predictor of respondents’ political orientation than any other issue — including gun control, abortion, and capital punishment. Denial of climate change is not just an opinion; it has become a dominant mark of people’s political identity.
This is no small problem. People with conservative values (some of whom may also vote for center-left parties) constitute the majority in almost all countries. In U.S. surveys, people who identify strongly with conservative values outnumber those who identify with liberal/left values by a ratio of 2 to 1.
In my book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, I argue that climate change exists for us in the form of socially constructed narratives built upon our values and identity. It is these narratives — not the underlying science or even the evidence before our own eyes — that leads us to accept or reject climate change.
Unfortunately, one of the dominant values in the climate movement is a disregard, if not outright contempt, for the right-leaning mainstream and their concerns. Activists often talk with disgust of the “selfishness,” “greed,” and “stupidity” of conservatives. This is intolerant and unpleasant. This denigration conveniently ignores the diversity of opinion and life experience among conservatives. A struggling rural family, an elderly Christian living on a small pension, a community shopkeeper, and a Wall Street banker are combined into one faceless enemy.
More often, though, conservatives are just ignored by activists. Few people in the climate movement want to deal with them, talk to them, or find out more about them. They simply don’t exist.
Recently I led a communications workshop for one of the largest international environmental networks, one I respect and have worked with for many years. I asked them, “Do you think that the climate change movement has a problem with its diversity?” Absolutely, they replied, it’s too dominated by middle-aged men, too white, too middle class, not enough involvement from minorities or indigenous peoples, not many disabled people. But nobody mentioned the absence of conservatives, and certainly no one in the room admitted to being one.
Diversity is a powerful frame for progressives, but its components have been entirely defined by the struggles of marginalized groups for representation. It makes us blind to our own failure to involve the majority of our fellow citizens.
Last year I was thrilled to attend the People’s Climate March in New York. (I think I can justify the carbon — I was already in the area for a six-state book tour.) An estimated 350,000 people marched with placards declaring “To Change Everything We Need Everyone.” But everyone seemed to mean only the groups that conform to the progressive ideology, which excludes the majority of the population. There was a great deal of progressive diversity at the march: Indigenous peoples headed it up, followed by environmental justice groups of all colors and ethnicities and labor unions. As someone who has campaigned for more than 20 years for indigenous rights, and led large programs with unions, I was thrilled to see such broad representation.
But as I watched the banners and placards pass by, I imagined how this march would appear to mainstream America. The dominant messages were about banning, stopping, boycotting things. Among them were hard left-wing messages about overthrowing capitalism and destroying Wall Street. A woman with a placard that read “Never, Never, Never, Never, Never, Ever Vote Republican” was cheered and whistled at. To balance this, a posse of cigar-chomping Republican frat boys turned up on the sidelines with cutouts of Ronald Reagan to wind up the lefties. But there was nothing, not so much as a word, to hint that mainstream conservatives had a place alongside everyone in the climate struggle. A small pack of Nebraskan ranchers, converted to the cause by their fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, told me freely and proudly that they were lifelong Republicans. They were hidden within the mass of the march when they should have been at its very front as a symbol of an extraordinary unity of purpose and our shared destiny.
Yes, we know that many Republican politicians are disgracefully negligent on this issue and corrupted by corporate interests. We know that the debate, fueled by the poison of shock jocks and Fox News, is offensive and often violent in its language. And we know that climate change deniers and the opponents of environmental laws are invariably right-wing in their politics. But there are also huge swaths of decent, honorable, middle American conservatives who are committed to their communities and prepared to make sacrifices to defend their values and way of life. I fear that for far too long, by refusing to engage with them, we have handed them over to our opponents.
We know how to change this. We’ve got previous experience with building diversity, whether it be economic, gender, or race: Actively hire new people from the underrepresented group who can work through their networks, then enable them to develop communications that speak to others like themselves using their own values.
The process by which we respond to climate change will lay the groundwork for our future adaptation. If we build a narrative around our interconnectedness and shared humanity, then we stand a good chance of pulling through, just as divided communities can settle their differences to pull together after a hurricane. If we build our movement through distrust and division, we create the preconditions for future infighting, blame, and scapegoating. Minority vanguards have only ever won when they’ve gotten their hands on guns and then ruled by them.
So my challenge to all people concerned about climate change is this: Reach across partisan boundaries and build a broad social consensus for action. We do not even have to agree about the details of the solutions — indeed I hope we maintain a strong debate. But we must come together in the recognition that dealing with climate change is the greatest calling of our age.
George Marshall is the cofounder of Climate Outreach, a communications nonprofit based in Oxford, U.K. He is author of Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change and blogs intermittently at Climatedenial.org.