(Getty/Salon)

Conservatives are willing to combat climate change — when it's not called "climate change"

Conservatives have a knee-jerk reactions to the phrase, so environmentalists are finding ways to reframe the issue


Amanda Marcotte
March 2, 2017 3:00PM (UTC)

The election of Donald Trump as president is catastrophic in many ways, but perhaps one of the worst implications is what it means for the environment. Trump is a climate change denialist who has repeatedly accused climate scientists of conspiring to hoodwink the public. Trump picked another climate change denialist, Scott Pruitt, to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt didn't even bother to mention climate change in his first speech to EPA staff, and made it clear that his first priority is to eliminate the Clean Power Plan, an Obama administration effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants nationwide.

The grim fact of the matter is that we cannot count on the federal government to step up efforts to deal with climate change — for the next four years at least. So some scientists are turning toward leaders in local governments, hoping they can use what power they have to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the damage already being created by global warming.

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The problem is that many communities have conservative populations that, for ideological reasons, refuse to accept that climate change is real, and as such will resist local leaders who attempt interventions that appear to be rooted in an acceptance of the scientific facts. But there may be a way to prompt conservative constituents to agree to actions that would address climate change: packaging the policies using other terms.

As Rebecca J. Romsdahl, an environmental science and policy professor at the University of North Dakota, and her team of researchers have discovered, that's what a number of local leaders are already doing. In 2013 and 2014, Romsdahl and her colleagues published findings from a survey of local leaders in the Great Plains states in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences and Review of Policy Research indicating that many local leaders are framing their climate change policies under banners like "sustainability" or "energy savings" instead of invoking a concept that rings too many alarm bells.

“Climate change is very contentious in their community, so the leaders are framing their responses to really match their community, their audience, to match their concerns and their values and preferences," Romsdahl explained over the phone. 

Yet climate change is having serious negative effects on the Great Plains. The region's economy is tied up in agriculture, but rising global temperatures are increasing water shortage problems and altering the growing season in ways that can drastically reduce crop output. But uttering the phrase "climate change" when addressing these problems causes huge numbers of people living in these areas to shut down. They associate the phrase with hated coastal liberalism and often refuse to even accept that climate change is real, lest they be tainted by dreaded liberal values.

In many cases, political leaders in the region themselves refuse to accept that climate change is settled science, and therefore, like Trump, will not commit to policies that address it.

What has worked, in some cases, to advance the cause of addressing cimate change is reframing the policies.

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"The study findings indicate a need to reframe the discussion away from climate change skepticism, toward a focus on possible impacts within current resource management priorities such as drought, so that proactive planning can be addressed," the 2013 paper, published in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Science, explained.

One reason people resist the idea of climate change, Romsdahl argued, is they "don’t want to talk about how climate change might affect their lifestyle." People dread being asked to reduce energy use, for instance, fearing that this means driving less or somehow giving up parts of their life that they enjoy. 

But climate change itself is negatively affecting people's lifestyles, and Romsdahl feels that framing environmental policies as protect-your-lifestyle policies may be a way to leverage that impulse for good.

For example, Romsdahl noted that warmer winters could ruin "winter festivals in northern states" because the weather isn't cold enough to "do activities commonly associated with winter festivals, like ice sculptures." Instead of framing a policy to reduce greenhouse emissions in terms of "climate change," politicians could frame it in terms of saving the region's winter festival. 

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It's understandable if this suggestion rankles coastal liberals and other members of the reality-based community. Who cares about winter festivals in sparsely inhabited states when global warming is causing serious problems around the globe, like droughts and resource conflicts? Shouldn't we worry more about how to encourage people to accept scientific facts and understand their moral duty to reduce their damage to the environment?

Well, it would be nice if people were better than they are. But as Romsdahl observed, holding out for people to change their way of thinking on this issue isn't doing the cause of environmentalism any favors.

“Continuing to talk about the science and the moral imperative to take action isn’t going to have any effect," Romsdahl said. "It hasn’t had enough effect so far."

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Some of the city mayors that Romsdahl's team spoke with explicitly understood that framing environmental policies in terms of self-interest, rather than mentioning the fight against climate change, was a political necessity.

One mayor, for instance, told researchers pro-environment policies were best framed in "terms of economic benefit [and] resource protection" because it was necessary to "garner support from residents who did not agree with climate change."

"We frame the initiative as: energy savings (=$ savings), as smart growth/good planning, and as common sense natural resource management," said another in the survey. "Climate change is only explicitly referenced in our Climate Protection Plan adopted in 2009. Most initiatives fall under the 'sustainability' umbrella term."

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How much of a spin needs to be put on environmental policies will vary greatly from community to community. The city of Fargo, North Dakota, for instance, is relatively liberal by Great Plains standards; its website on environmental policy does use terms like "climate change" and "carbon footprint." But Fargo's program to capture methane gas from a landfill and convert it into electricity is still packaged more as a money- and energy-saving measure than a greenhouse gas reduction measure, making it easier for conservatives in the area to accept.

It's a shame that anything associated with liberal ideology is so demonized that rational discussions with conservatives become nearly impossible. We see this problem with the Affordable Care Act as well. When it's called "Obamacare," many conservatives will refuse to support it, even if they like the specific policies contained in the law.

Unfortunately, we can't wait around for conservatives to get over themselves in order to deal with the problem of climate change. The effects are happening now and must be dealt with. If reframing the issue in terms that are easier for conservatives to swallow helps get important policy changes in motion, activists and leaders shouldn't hesitate to use a little spin.


Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. Her new book, "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself," is out now. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

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