This article is the latest in the current series looking to the 2018 midterm Congressional elections as an opportunity to broaden support for federal clean energy and climate policies. Today’s installment addresses alternative facts and how membership in an identity group can impact the way people process climate data.
Not a problem to be solved quickly, climate change must be attended to steadily. Doing so requires forging a workable alliance of Republicans and Democrats—starting in local communities and ending in Capital City.
Fashioning any cross-aisle collaboration in today’s hyper-partisan environment is likely to prove messy. Passions run high on both sides, and there is enmity within. Cross-aisle cooperation requires lowering ideological barriers long enough to get something accomplished. Barriers define and protect, lowering them risks attack by both friends and enemies.
Today’s installment discusses why words matter, looks at some unlikely political pairings, identifies areas of agreement based on stated positions, and adds to the to-do list.
Ours is a nation so divided as to make a substantive national debate about the causes, consequences and required responses to climate change virtually impossible. In its inimitable style, a recent headline in the Onion read: Study: 90 Percent Of Americans Strongly Opposed To Each Other. The story quotes the imagined Babette Randolph: In the questionnaire we administered, nine out of 10 participants indicated they fundamentally disapproved of the actions currently being taken by their fellow citizens.
Although not quite as extreme as reported, the divide in America is real and having a profound influence on how people receive and perceive information.
Group affiliation is so dominant in today’s political arena as to have given rise to a willingness to accept lies as truths--or at least as good enough for government work.
Half the world laughed at Kellyanne when she famously referred to Sean Spicer’s lie about the size of Trump’s…inaugural crowd as alternative facts. The other half defended her. Why? They were members of the same identity group--Trumpstefarians.
Nowhere is the willingness of people to accept the baseless word of someone else more apparent than in matters of global warming. Today, the single most reliable marker of an individual’s stance on the causes and consequences of global warming is whether they are Republican or Democrat.
According to Julie Beck, writing in The Atlantic:
…in modern America, one of the groups that people have most intensely hitched their identities to is their political party. Americans are more politically polarized than they’ve been in decades, possibly ever.
Beck’s conclusion is backed by dozens of studies, including the work of the Pew Research Centers. Pew and others have consistently found that a high level of [science] knowledge doesn’t make Republicans any more likely to say they believe in climate change, though it did for Democrats. Why Democrats accept the scientific evidence is likely a function of their wanting to believe it in the first place, as opposed to any differences in intellect.
Beck asks: how many people who (rightly) believe climate change is real could actually explain how it works? I don’t know the answer, although I suspect she is on to something with the question.
There is also a follow-on question needing to be asked: Does it matter why a climate defender or denier takes the position they do?
Indeed, it does. If a denier has taken the stance they have for scientific reasons, then sitting down with them and offering up the considerable body of scientific proof of the causes and consequences of global warming should convince a denier to come over to the bright side.
If, however, a denier denies for other than factual reasons, i.e., their party tells them it ain’t so, then an entirely different response can be expected. What many defenders consider matters of fact, many deniers view as a matter of affiliation.
My father once told me that a person who has never been talked into something is unlikely ever to be talked out of it. The authors of When Prophecy Fails explain it this way:
A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree…he turns away. Show him facts or figures…he questions your sources. Appeal to logic…he fails to see your point…Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. (emphasis added)
To paraphrase John Gray, climate defenders are from Saturn; deniers are from Uranus. The difference in perception makes constructive dialogue difficult but not impossible. It boils down to the message and the messenger.
Messages matter—a different kind of science
The difference in the way people see the same event or set of facts is called perceptual bias by academicians. According to professors Jerit and Barabas:
Perceptual bias occurs when beliefs deviate from reality. Democrats and Republicans are thought to be especially susceptible to this type of biased information processing.
Had Kellyanne termed Spicer’s lie about the size of Trump’s…inaugural crowd a perceptual bias rather than an alternative fact, she would have been confirmed in her observation by behavioral scientists.
The mistake many clean energy and environmental advocates make is thinking climate change is factual when for many it is tribal. According to Yale Professor Dan Kahan:
Most people have no reason to have a position on climate change aside from expression of their identity.
Just telling people that over and over — something advocacy groups have been spending millions of dollars doing for over a decade — misses the point: Positions on climate change have become symbols of whose side you are on in a cultural conflict divorced from science. (emphasis added)
Ask yourself why Trumpsters believe his alternative facts—whether the size of his…listening audience or his claims of FAKE NEWS? For that matter, ask yourself why Berniecrats believe it when Sanders misspeaks:
The answer is the same in both cases. Lies are believed because of loyalty to the liar.
People see themselves as members of an identity group(s). There’s comfort and security in belonging to a tribe. Think of it as a case of life imitating reality TV. Simply stated, when it comes to believing in climate change and the need to do something about it –
TRIBES TRUMP TRUTHS!
How then can defenders get deniers to change their minds? There are mixed answers to the question. Social psychologist Carol Tavris and other dissonance theorists believe when people are faced with facts that conflict with what their tribe is telling them, loyalty to the group wins out. If the behaviorists are right, then it is unlikely that anything will convince a denier to become a believer short of a wholesale tribal transformation.
For Kahan, the messaging matters. Based on his research conservative Republicans know just as much as "liberal Democrats" about climate science and more importantly are just as likely to be motivated to see scientific evidence of climate change as supporting the conclusion that we face huge risks. Kahan suggests that despite equivalency, Republicans do not respond well to social-marketing campaigns featuring the message that 97% of climate scientists say…anything.
The reason why such a simple statistic evinces skepticism in the minds of presumably literate Republicans is they feel the defenders are attacking their group in a mean, illiberal, collective-knowledge-vitiating, individual-reason-effacing manner. It’s not the facts they deny; it’s the attitude of the presenter they resent.
Words have always mattered. In today’s hypertense political arena, however, they seem to matter more. Studies and experience suggest words like climate change, environmentalist, and denier are emotional triggers prompting people to become aggressive, defensive and resistant to the message.
Consider that an Earth Day 2017 celebration in Dallas attracted 100,000 people including climate researchers from elite universities as far away as New York City, oil-company executives, and families. If the crowd size wasn’t impressive enough on its own, the fact that it was organized by an avowed Republican conservative should be.
The organizer was Trammel Crow, the CEO of a Texas-sized real estate firm. Crow’s motto is‘To conserve is conservative.' Part of his method for getting so large a crowd was resisting any urge to use phrases like climate change, and 97% of researchers say.
Professor Kahan points to the successful effort of four Southeast Florida counties to craft a Regional Climate Action Plan. The Plan identifies 110 items to be implemented over a multi-year period. Kahan is quick to point out that the phrase scientific consensus was left out of the messaging:
The dozens of open meetings and forums, convened not just by the Compact governments but by business, residential, and other groups in civil society filled the region’s science communication environment with exactly the information that ordinary people rationally rely on to discern what’s known to science.
Kahan attributes a big portion of the project’s success to its using science as a tool rather than a billy club.
The Associated Press, in 2015, ignited a debate in journalistic ranks when it released its AP Stylebook. The announcement said:
Our guidance is to use climate change doubters or those who reject mainstream climate science and to avoid the use of skeptics or deniers.
Not everyone was on board with the suggested change. Michael Mann, a well-known climate scientist, took exception to the guidance:
Those who are in denial of basic science, be it evolution or human-caused climate change, are in fact science-deniers. To call them anything else, be it ‘skeptic’ or ‘doubter,’ is to grant an undeserved air of legitimacy to something that is simply not legitimate.
Should you think words have no meaning and climate change doubters are without feelings, you might want to think again. In 2015, the decidedly right-leaning American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) sent cease and desist letters to a number of left-leaning organizations, e.g., Common Cause and the League of Conservation Voters (LCV). It seems ALEC doesn’t see itself as in denial.
In their letters, ALEC claims it neither denies the existence of climate change nor discounts the contributions of human activity. Rather, the organization says it is suspicious of the scientific evidence. It is a line being consistently used now by many in the Trump administration.
“Skeptical” is the new HELL NO!
ALEC is an interesting study of what’s in a name. The threat to sue over the label of denier was thought to be motivated by the exit of members like Google, Microsoft, Merck, GM, VISA, Walgreens, Walmart, Amazon, McDonalds, Coca Cola, and Kraft. The “exiters” seem not to share ALEC’s suspicions of the science. Many of these companies, in fact, are making known their climate concerns and vowing to reduce their carbon footprints prominently in their marketing efforts.
ALEC is on record against the Clean Power Plan (CPP) and has historically been in favor of tossing the endangerment finding upon which the Plan and other recent environmental regulations are based. The organization stands shoulder to shoulder with groups like the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Koch brothers.
The threatened suit over being called a wake of deniers was meant to show a gentler more rational side of the organization to the public and its remaining members, who may also be thinking to leave the building. ALEC’s civil war between right and left-leaning members confirms what Trammel Crow and Professor Kahan have to say about the power of words.
Words also matter to Millennials, an identity group more accepting of the science behind the claims and causes of climate change—no matter their party affiliation—than older generations. (Graph 1) It is a cohort more willing to do something about Earth’s warming (Graph 2 ) but less willing to embrace the term environmentalist. (Graph 3)
Words are not the only things that matter. Who is responsible for delivering them can be as important in the political arena as the missives themselves. It is hardly surprising that people are more likely to the take the word of another tribal member over that of a mean, illiberal, collective-knowledge-vitiating outsider.
Remember, the record shows Republicans are as scientifically literate as Democrats. Accepting the tribe’s position carries with it a built-in sense of security. Rejecting it risks being ostracized and the loss of identity. The willingness to accept fancy as fact is aided by the belief that there are few near-term risks associated with Earth’s warming, e.g., droughts and disease.
In the extreme, my party right or wrong has been playing on cable news almost every night since Trump became the Republican nominee.
For Trump and many of his core supporters, veracity is incidental to loyalty.
Establishment Republicans, recognizing the risk of being declared persona non grata, have chosen more often than not to acquiesce to The Donald’s alternative facts.
Perhaps not as extreme as the rivalry between establishment and populist Republicans, are the internal tensions between progressive and establishment Democrats. Climate change is accepted by Democrats for the most part. Although accepting, the party is showing itself unwilling[i] to keep the issue front and center on its action agenda.
The intra-party rivalry between establishment and populist Republicans is making it particularly difficult for clean energy and climate advocates to get even a well-worded message to candidates and voters. Fortunately, there is an available course of action for raising clean energy and the environment to the level of a core priority of both parties.
Bi-partisan approaches to the 2018 candidates, in both the primaries and the general elections, carry significant and lasting benefits whatever the outcome in November. While there’s no erasing humans’ tribal tendencies, muddying waters of partisanship could make people more open to changing their minds.
Politics can indeed make for strange bedfellows; in my opinion, such sleeping around is to be encouraged. A stunning example of unexpected “togetherness” was the formation of the Energy Trade Action Coalition (ETAC) to oppose the tariffs on imported solar products. Members of the coalition included the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the Heritage Foundation and ALEC (yes, that ALEC).
As striking as the formation of the Coalition, was Solar Powers America’s commissioning Sean Hannity (yes, that Hannity) to record an ad urging The Donald not to levy the tariff. Hannity is a messenger that matters to Trump based on their history.
In the case of the solar tariffs, hiring Hannity paid heed to the importance of the messenger as well as the message. Trump’s affection for tariffs meant the message was unlikely to be acted upon. One wonders if the message had been about something other than tariffs, e.g., adequate program funding, whether Trump would have looked past Hannity’s being paid to deliver it. This as compared to an issue like gun control for which Hannity has a presumably non-remunerative interest. Sincerity may still count for something.
Conservative organizations and clean energy and climate groups have found themselves in agreement on other issues within the past year. When Secretary of Energy Perry issued his Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR) to subsidize the coal industry, conservative Republican organizations like the R Street Institute were as opposed to it as the NRDC.
When the Department of the Interior announced it was opening up vast offshore areas to oil drilling, many Republican governors and members of Congress pushed back against the decision as ferociously as the environmental community.
Republican organizations like the Climate Leadership Conference and the newly formed coalition of College Republican groups have joined the chorus of voices backing a federal climate-policy through their support for a carbon tax. Each day, more businesses and companies are acknowledging the climate is changing and exhibiting a willingness to combat warming by purchasing green power and taking other steps to lessen their impacts on the environment.
Other potential areas of defender/denier agreement might include:
Granted these are not overly aggressive actions relative to threat levels. Still, they could contribute to the overall effort to preserve and protect the environment.
Finally, there is an important tactical lesson to be learned in the ALEC case about getting large identity groups to lower their defenses long enough to collaborate. Members of large groups are rarely of one mind. Where a frontal approach is likely to encounter heavy resistance, an overture to a group’s more amenable members may succeed.
As effective as bi-partisan partnerships can be, collaborators need to beware and not allow themselves to be bamboozled by empty gestures. ALEC’s desire to be known as a skeptic rather than a denier is only meaningful if the organization is willing to be convinced by the evidence. Similarly, a member of Congress joining the House Climate Solutions Caucus is praiseworthy only if the act is sincere.
The Caucus is an effort to build support for bi-partisan solutions to climate change. According to the documents filed with the Committee on House Administration the Caucus will explore policy options that address the impacts, causes, and challenges of our changing climate. The idea for the group came from the Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL). CCL is committed to the passage of a national carbon tax and has a membership of some 64,000.
The Caucus currently has 72 members—36 Republicans and 36 Democrats. The balance is by design; a member of one party can only join if matched by an opposite. Recent Republicans to join the Caucus are Daryl Issa (R-CA) and Fred Upton (R-MI).
Issa, as head of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, targeted climate scientist Michael Mann. In 2013, the League of Conservation Voters and Organizing for America gave him their Climate Change Denier award.
Upton, over the past 10 years, Upton has been a reliable pro-fossil fuel vote in Congress. He voted against the Waxman-Markey climate bill in 2009, opposed the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and along the Atlantic Coast.
Upton’s record also includes his opposition to Trump’s pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Accord and voting against an amendment to the 2018 defense authorization bill deleting the directive to defense officials to identify climate risks to military installations, e.g., rising sea levels and loss of power during severe weather events. The proposed amendment was ideologically based and consistent with the Administration’s purging of all references to climate change in national security planning documents.
Is Issa an unrepentant and unredeemable denier? What of Upton? Climate defenders need to ask themselves whether their joining the Caucus is:
How you answer these questions is going to influence how you will use the time between now and November 6th.
From where I sit, it is the all or nothing nature of the current national climate debate that prevents moving towards a stable federal framework of policies and programs. I have no illusion that a time will come when climate defenders and deniers finally link arms and walk into the sunset together. Unless of course, it is at the end of days brought on by a collective failure to protect the planet and preserve the environment for future generations. Even then, I have my doubts.
The 2018 midterm elections are an opportunity to show candidates that climate matters not just to defenders but to many in one way or another.
New items for the to-do list:
1. Continue to research advocacy agendas of various groups in your community, e.g., social/economic justice, faith, labor, business, environmental and educational, et al. to better understand who’s out there.
2. Reach out to various groups from the list above and solicit their input/participation and potential sponsorship of candidate forums.
3. Reach out in particular to student groups at high schools and universities, e.g., Students for Carbon Dividends[i]. The enthusiasm of students is infectious and their addition to any coalition highlights the generational importance of combatting climate change.
4. Develop a candidate questionnaire asking their position on climate-science, government (federal/state) support of clean energy programs, environmental regulation, carbon taxes, environmental justice, e.g., employment training focused on jobs in the emerging clean energy economy, efficiency retrofits of low-income residences, and where waste dumps are sited.
Work with other organizations in developing the list and send it out as a coalition of interests.
5. Contact local TV and radio stations and encourage them to do a series on candidates and their position on climate. Include a suggestion that the weather folks add information on the impact of climate change in reporting severe weather events.
6. Plan a campaign to have resolutions introduced into your state legislature and city/town councils declaring climate change a real and immediate threat to the health and welfare of the community.
[ii] Recently formed groups of young Republicans at various universities around the country that are supporting a national carbon tax.
Image: An illustration showing the 8 planets of the Solar System to scale Credit: NASA
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.