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Climate change and energy

How the science of persuasion could change the politics of climate change

Conservatives have to make the case to conservatives, and a growing number of them are.
April 16, 2018
Nico Ortega

Jerry Taylor believes he can change the minds of conservative climate skeptics. After all, he helped plant the doubts for many in the first place.

Taylor spent years as a professional climate denier at the Cato Institute, arguing against climate science, regulations, and treaties in op-eds, speeches, and media appearances. But his perspective slowly began to change around the turn of the century, driven by the arguments of several economists and legal scholars laying out the long-tail risks of global warming.

Now he’s president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian-leaning Washington, DC, think tank he founded in 2014. He and his colleagues there are trying to build support for the passage of an aggressive federal carbon tax, through discussions with Washington insiders, with a particular focus on Republican legislators and their staff.

A small but growing contingent of fiscal conservatives and corporate interests are arguing for similar policies in the United States. They include party elders like former secretary of state George Shultz, energy giants like Exxon Mobil, and nearly two dozen college Republican groups. Taylor and others believe it’s conversations like these—with political elites, and focused on policies they can justify in conservative terms—that could eventually lead to real action on climate change.

While much of the research and debate today focuses on figuring out the right mix of clean energy sources, or on developing better and cheaper technologies, the real breakthrough that’s required might lie in the science of persuasion. We’ll never generate enough clean energy to dramatically cut emissions in the next few decades—while abandoning fossil-fuel plants that still work perfectly well—as long as so many political leaders adamantly deny even the existence of anthropogenic climate change.

As it happens, the academic literature offers insights on what drives such shifts in political sentiment, and it very much conforms with the approach that the Niskanen Center and other groups are taking.

Lesson 1: Pick the right targets

Political scientists consistently find that mass opinion doesn’t drive the policy debate so much as the other way around. Partisan divides emerge first among “elites,” including influential advocacy groups, high-profile commentators, and politicians, says Megan Mullin, an associate professor of environmental politics at Duke University.

They, in turn, set the terms of debate in the public mind, spreading the parties’ views through tested and refined sound bites in media appearances, editorials, social media, and other forums.

For the most part, people first align themselves with groups, often political parties, that appeal to them on the basis of their own experiences, demographics, and social networks. They then entrust the recognized leaders of their self-selected tribe to sort out the details of dense policy and science for them, while vigorously rejecting arguments that seem to oppose their ideologies—in part because such arguments also effectively attack their identity.

In fact, political predisposition is by far the most influential factor in determining a person’s “perceptions and attitudes about climate change,” noted Mullin and Patrick Egan, an associate professor of politics at New York University, in a 2017 analysis in the Annual Review of Political Science.

In many ways, the climate-change debate is ensnared in the culture wars that have consumed US politics over the last three decades.

“Positions on climate change have become symbols of whose side you are on in a cultural conflict divorced from science,” Dan Kahan, a Yale professor of law and psychology who has closely studied this issue, has said.

In the late 1980s, nearly 70 percent of Americans across the political spectrum expressed a similarly high level of concern about the issue, according to Gallup polling. But a gap has steadily widened along party lines in the decades since, driven at least in part by a deliberate campaign of climate denial by conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Heartland Institute, scholars say

A Gallup poll in late March found that nearly 70 percent of Republicans believe global warming is “generally exaggerated,” while 67 percent of Democrats believe it will pose a “serious threat” in their lifetimes.

The major takeaway from all this is a pretty obvious, if somewhat radical, departure from the way we tend to think about spreading political messages and advancing laws: The real focus shouldn’t be on convincing the public, hitting people over the head again and again with the science and dangers of climate change.

Instead, the goal should be to change the minds of the elites. When they send clear and consistent signals, mass opinions that seemed strong and fixed can swing in the other direction, Mullin says. The good news is this means you don’t have to change as many minds. The bad news is the ones you do have to change can be particularly stubborn ones.

Lesson 2: Depoliticize the issue

So how do you even begin to convince the conservatives who could actually drive debates and change policies?

When Taylor sits down across from them, his standard opening goes: “I understand why you’re skeptical. I probably wrote most of the talking points you’ve read. But I changed my mind, and let me explain why I did.”

No one is receptive to being called dumb or a lackey of corporate interests, Taylor says. Instead, he and his staff attempt to craft fact-based arguments designed to appeal specifically to their political interests, and present policies they can rationalize within their ideologies.

Notably, the Niskanen Center isn’t pushing the environmental regulations that conservatives despise. They’re advocating a revenue-neutral carbon tax, a market-based tool. Carbon pollution costs real people real money. It’s just that the polluters aren’t necessarily the ones bearing those costs. In a market that respects the property rights libertarians champion, that “externality” needs to be priced in, Taylor says.

It’s a carbon tax that conservatives like Shultz, fellow former secretary of state James Baker, and past Treasury secretary Hank Paulson have also rallied around as at least a palatable policy for addressing climate change. Republicans generally oppose new taxes, of course. But in this case, they strongly prefer a market mechanism that nudges business behavior to environmental rules that strictly dictate corporate actions.

Lesson 3: Pick the right policies

Former congressman Bob Inglis, a South Carolina Republican, also argues that the GOP will come around to a carbon tax, particularly if parties can reach a grand bargain that includes the rollback of regulatory efforts like the Clean Power Plan.

“We think it takes having conservatives hear solutions in the language of conservatism,” says Inglis, who served two stints in Congress and had a change of heart on the subject in between.

He knows as well as anyone the price that Republicans can pay for coming out too strongly on climate change. Inglis lost his House seat in the 2010 Republican primary to a Tea Party–backed challenger, at least in part because of his advocacy for a carbon tax.

Now he oversees RepublicEn, an initiative to encourage GOP leaders across the nation to embrace the cause. He believes it’s becoming safer for Republicans to step out in front of this issue, in part because of the growing backlash against President Donald Trump.

That said, by all accounts it’s still going to take years to build the necessary support to actually pass a carbon tax.

“Jesus Christ himself could not deliver that with this Congress,” Taylor says.

Lesson 4: Find areas of common ground

Another strategy that political scientists have advanced for enacting climate-friendly policies relates to the “co-benefits theory.” The basic concept is that many of the same steps that will cut greenhouse-gas emissions will also promote technological innovation, energy independence, national security, air quality, health, and jobs.

Even if citizens or politicians don’t care deeply about the distant threat of climate change, they probably worry a lot about some of the latter issues, says David Victor, an energy policy researcher at the University of California, San Diego. That could present opportunities to push through policies that achieve progress in both.

In fact, there are signs of growing bipartisan support for clean energy, at least partially driven by the fact that deeply red states have become big generators of jobs in wind and solar power. In recent months, the Republican-led Congress beat back the White House’s proposal to slash federal spending on clean-energy research, extended tax credits for solar and wind, and significantly increased subsidies for carbon capture and storage (see “The carbon-capture era may finally be starting”).

Climate groups could seize on other areas of common interest with conservatives—some of which even the Trump administration has expressed support for, like advanced nuclear power and long-distance transmission lines (see “How to get Wyoming wind to California, and cut 80% of US carbon emissions”).

Of course, the risk of conflating economic goals with climate goals is that the resulting policies won't lead to deep enough emissions cuts. You can create green jobs without cutting carbon pollution. Indeed, none of this represents a simple or surefire way of shifting opinion and policies on a highly-polarized issue in a hyper-partisan political climate. There are fortunes at stake, and many will continue to fight hard and dirty to protect their financial interests.

Taylor acknowledges that some groups are still simply beyond reach, noting early conversations with the Koch-backed Heritage Foundation and Competitive Enterprise Institute went nowhere. But he says the Niskanen Center has already convinced some Republican lawmakers to come around, though none he can yet name publicly.

That, given today’s intense culture wars over climate change, is at least a start.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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