Ecology, Climate Change and Related News

Conservation Science for a Healthy Planet

Some can’t be persuaded on climate change. So now what?

Leave a Comment

…..Well, as I’ve written many times, public opinion is not some great enduring mystery. There’s a decent consensus in the social sciences on what most moves public opinion: elite cues.

And so it is with climate change. Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle has been all over this for years — see, e.g., this recent paper with McGill’s Jason Carmichael. Science-based educational campaigns have virtually no effect on climate opinion, they found. Weather events and economic swings have some temporary effects. What moves the needle are elite cues.

That’s just a fancy way of saying that people care more about something when they see it around them, when they read it in the newspaper, see it on TV, hear politicians discussing it, see activists in the streets marching about it, watch celebrities pretending to care about it. Those are all elite cues.

That’s the stuff that shapes ordinary people’s opinions, on all sides of the political spectrum. Very few individuals have the time and wherewithal to investigate the world’s woes independently. They absorb the values and worldviews of their tribes….

….the good news is that if conservative elite opinion swung around on climate change, conservative mass opinion would swing easily behind. Nobody really cares about “issues” like this beyond how they inform social identity anyway. Very few people beyond the Heritage Foundation have any independent commitment to flat-earthism on climate.

….Just about every substantial policy shift in the US in the past 20 years has been a matter of one side overwhelming the other — of conflict, not consensus. Some were “bipartisan” in the sense that a few legislators crossed the aisle, but partisan unity is more and more the rule in US politics. We have “weak parties and strong partisanship,” as political scientist Julia Azari puts it, which makes substantial compromise more and more difficult.

“Pundits who say that ‘nothing can get done without bipartisan support’,” write Steven Teles, Heather Hurlburt, and Mark Schmitt in one of my favorite essays on polarization, “no longer have the evidence on their side.” In fact, that increasingly looks like the only way anything ever gets done….

….Agonism (thanks to Henderson, a climate-focused social scientist, for the tweet tip) is the view that in some contexts and within limits, political conflict is good. Sometimes conflict clarifies, educates, and leads to progress.

Sometimes the right strategy is to grab and own an issue, to exclude (not invite) the other party, to tie the issue to core coalition values and use the intensity to increase the political power of the coalition.

….It may just be that we’re not all going to get along — that the only way to move forward on this is to fight it out.

If that’s true, then what matters most on the left is not the breadth of agreement, but the depth. It is intensity that wins political battles. The only way Democrats can achieve progress on this is to intensify the fight.

Tepid “free market” messages, forever hoping to win over an unwinnable right, won’t do that. They do nothing to inspire those who already care and are primed for action.

….The weather is only getting worse, young people are only getting more engaged, and clean energy is only getting cheaper. Climate change and clean energy will be winning issues in the long term.

Why not claim and own them while it’s still possible? Then the GOP’s motto in the 2020s can be: “Hey, We Like Clean Energy Too!”

In reality, Democrats probably don’t have the wherewithal to mount that kind of fight. But that’s the only thing that has a chance of breaking the stalemate. The quest to persuade US conservatives on climate change has been extraordinarily long, vigorous, and well-documented. It has also been largely fruitless. Perhaps it’s time for a little agonism.

View all articles

Comments are closed