How to talk to the right about climate
Updated: Apr 19
If you’re furiously tweeting out the latest article about a melting glacier, stop. It’s not working.
Facts are unpersuasive as a rule, and they’re particularly irrelevant for climate change. They’re remote, for starters. We’re all familiar with our local weather, but none of us experiences the global climate. Whatever impressions we form come piecemeal from news articles about a temperature record here or a banana harvest there.
Virtually no one digs deeper than that. As I write this, Extinction Rebellion protesters are attempting to paralyze London into action on climate. The great majority of them will never have read an IPCC report, and they’re probably better informed than most. People don’t do research, especially on a topic as technically imposing as climate science.
The key to resolving conflicts is always integrating competing points of view--understanding both sides well enough to form a synthesis viewpoint, from which shared values and blocking assumptions become apparent.
The left is unfortunately famous for not understanding the right as well as the right understands the left. If your best theory is conservative doubters must be in the pay of Big Oil, you’re searching under the wrong streetlamp.
To help you locate the right one, here’s a peek inside the conservative brain.
The conservative temperament
We each filter the world through our own sieve. If you’re an optimist, you preferentially notice good news, and the world becomes a happier place. If you’re an extrovert, you see a world dominated by people and relationships. If you’re a Marxist, the world is an endless story of class struggle.
Conservatives tend to filter for continuity. The world is a long-running story anchored by eternal truths. Although the present day brings a few novelties, most of existence is running just like it always has.
If that’s your filter, you’ll frown at the headline “New Thing Happens” before you even read what the Thing is. Plenty of Things may look new, you grumble, that have actually been that way for centuries.
Climate change immediately clogs in your filter. The earth chugged along for hundreds of millions of years with a stable climate, despite volcanoes and meteors and whole continents coming and going. It’s possible that it became unstable because we drove cars for a handful of decades, but it sounds very unlikely. To find that credible you have to attach great importance to man relative to nature, and to the present day as a pivotal moment in history when the most impactful decisions are being made. That’s not how conservatives see the world.
It is, however, how they see the left. Global warming is a morality tale where the left’s traditional nemeses--capitalism, industrialization, and the private sector--are the villains, and government programs are mankind’s only hope. It romanticizes nature as a peaceful idyll vulnerable to man’s encroachment. Its call to austerity appeals to a sense of liberal guilt for the developed world’s prosperity and provides a way to atone by sacrificing our cars and planes and consumption habits.
It sounds like exactly the sort of story the left would find irresistible.
An inconvenient truth, or too good to be true?
It’s not exactly a secret that progressives have a long agenda for society, and it involves expanding government to take on more problems. They are in a perpetual quest for more funding from taxpayers and more weaponry to blast through political resistance.
Consider how well the contours of climate change fit that agenda. It features an epic peril much worse than trivialities like an unaffordable drug or a busload of kidnapped children. It threatens everything from where we can live to whether we have food to eat, and does so on a global scale.
It’s specific enough to frighten, but vague enough to thwart disproof. Whether it’s hot or cold, drought or flood, whatever you see outside your window might be evidence of climate change. If you don’t see anything remarkable, well, that just confirms what scientists tell us: the real problem is decades in the future. You’re not going to argue with scientists, are you?
Activists don’t have to raise money to build awareness around this issue, because it generates its own press. The corporate media is happy to adopt climate change and promote it, since after all it keeps them fed. If you’re trying to fill slots on your broadcast cheaply, you can just talk about the weather. It used to be a banal topic that wasn’t newsworthy until an extreme flood or storm hit. Now you no longer need to wait. Even completely routine events like calving glaciers or wildfires or a sunny day can be framed as ominous portents of what’s to come.
Although we can’t tell for sure when the problem is happening, and although the real problems are supposed to be many years in the future, we can’t just wait until the problems are unambiguous. Due to the time it takes ice to thaw and oceans to warm, there’s an intrinsic time delay, and the longer we wait the harder it gets to stop. So we need to embrace huge costs today, even though we will not notice any benefits for many years if at all.
It’s global, it’s scary, it’s non-falsifiable. It’s expensive to fix but cheap to promote. It tempts your supporters to fashion themselves saviors of the environment by standing up to industrial capitalism.
It looks like a progressive activist's dream issue. And conservatives have noticed.
The trust gap
This is why the left can’t get through to the right on climate change: it’s too convenient on its face. It sounds like exactly the sort of issue the left would make up, or at least accept uncritically and eagerly repeat. Skepticism about climate is fundamentally skepticism about the left’s objectivity and sincerity.
Does that sound cynical and unfair? They didn’t adopt that viewpoint in a vacuum, and the Green New Deal unfortunately confirmed exactly what they suspected: climate change is simply a pretext for the left to ram through its traditional agenda.
Conservatives are even skeptical the left believes in climate change themselves. If you genuinely thought the world will end in a few decades without urgent action, you wouldn’t talk about anything else. You wouldn’t put other goals like job guarantees and healthcare and minority reparations ahead of averting the disaster. You’d mobilize to build thousands of nuclear plants immediately, because whatever their drawbacks they’re the surest way to cut emissions. You’d be open to other geoengineering fixes rather than dogmatically insisting CO2 reductions the world doesn’t know how to make are the only acceptable solution.
On the other hand, if the issue is merely a political battering ram, you’d apply it to whatever doors you want open, rather than just climate mitigation. You’d frame climate problems as broadly as possible so everything becomes about the climate, rather than as narrowly as possible to maximize the chance of solving them. You’d silence anyone spreading good news about the climate, because that undermines the issue’s effectiveness as a political tool. You’d do, in other words, exactly what the left has been doing for decades.
The right fundamentally distrusts the left’s motives and even self-awareness. They see the misalignment between words and deeds and doubt that climate activists are really clear themselves on what they're fighting for.
Before the climate conversation can advance, the two sides need to rebuild rapport.
A new conversation
So how should you approach the right on climate? If the reaction you're getting isn't the one you want, try a different approach.
You're unlikely to persuade anyone whose point of view you don’t understand to begin with. If it's news to you the the left has such a credibility deficit with the right, understanding the deficit should be your first step.
To do that, ask questions. Ask more fundamental questions than you might have been asking so far: Who do you trust to tell things like they are, and why? Do you think people on the left have a blind spot? Does it seem to you like the left actually cares about climate change, or are they using that as a pretext for other issues? Would you say the left has a reputation for crying wolf?
Read what they're reading. Show them this article. Find out which parts resonate and why. Resist the urge to argue. If the answers surprise, ask more questions to tease out a different world view. Don't scare it away with skepticism or judgment.
Don't do it online, or if you do don't expect it to work well. Most people online regard any question as a trap and evade it; hardly anyone online is secure enough to answer questions honestly. You'll get best results talking to people face to face.
And don't expect to change minds in step one. If you can just get someone who disagrees with you to feel listened to and respected, you'll have taken a massive step at undoing damage and repairing some trust. Give that time to happen, and you'll find getting truly aligned happens all by itself.