I apologize.* I was wrong. I believed there was a way to have a conversation with conservatives about the environment and the climate crisis. I’ve criticized some of my friends and colleagues for arguing the facts against climate denial, (see Climate Change is Real, So What?) which re-enforces the climate denial frame. I still believe arguing against the frame is a waste of time and has a negative effect. But I’ve also looked for that “magic bullet” set-of-words that could change conservative beliefs toward understanding.
But what if conservatives can’t be persuaded? There is nothing to indicate that, as environmentalists, we are succeeding in persuading conservatives on the issue of the climate crisis. We “hope” they will modify a couple of their positions, i.e. perhaps by not killing renewable energy. We “hope” that they are willing to go against their donors and their base. We try to use their mantras of ‘free markets’ or ‘freedom’ to persuade them. We make reasonable arguments based on facts, and we are polite. But the divide is growing. The environment is now more a polarizing topic than abortion or gun control.
Personally, a couple of things have happened recently that are beginning to change my mind on ‘having a conversation.’ I confided to a friend that I am so pissed by what the Trump administration is doing to the environment that I said I might “go-off” on the next denial idiot that pipes up. He said, “Why don’t you?”
At the same time, I’ve used Facebook as an experiment to see how to persuade conservatives. Most of what I get back is poorly reasoned and based on the lies of Koch Brother-funded right-wing media and think tanks. What surprises me is the vehemence and hate that comes back. Including, “You should just die.” I confess to being depressed by comments like this.
But what if trying to persuade conservatives is the wrong approach? The idea of persuading even one in ten seems daunting. We don’t have the time, the energy, the coordination to do this. That begs the question, what, if anything, will?
Liberals and progressives believe in the myth of reason, that facts matter (they do at the right time), and that reason will prevail. But let’s take a look at two recent occurrences. First, 16,000 scientists just wrote a “Letter to Humanity” about the consequences of not addressing the climate crisis. Is anybody paying attention? Only the converted. Second, the Trump Administration just sent a delegation of fossil fuel promoters to the Bonn COP23 climate conference. That’s a little like sending the tobacco industry to a cancer prevention conference. What’s the result? Absurd as this act seems, it gets news coverage. It plays on Fox and is written about in Brietbart. The Trump base cheers. Conservatives aren’t listening to both sides of the argument and irony is wasted on the right.
What Trump, and increasingly, the oil-sponsored right, realize is that politics flows, not from the voters upward, but from politicians and leaders downward. “Assessments of science follow political opinion; they do not precede them,” says Megan Mullin of NYU. Public and voter opinion is guided by signals from their elite. For example, what people read in the newspapers, see on Fox, hear their politicians discussing, see Tea Party activists protesting, and watch conservative talking heads repeating their points ad nauseum. That’s why conservatives are more successful. These conservative elites are funded by the fossil fuel industry. Their think tanks create the issue, then look at the values that support them, create moral indignation, and finally blast it out into the media sphere with relentless consistency and unending repetition. Witness the move to support coal or even the use of the term clean coal.
Unfortunately, no one has figured out how to keep conservative elites from lying to their base about climate change. Again, they are well funded by the fossil fuel industry.
But perhaps the answer to this dilemma resonates with my reaction to being pissed off. There is not one issue on which the right and left agree. There is a fallacy in the idea that politics works through agreement and getting everyone on the same side is what we need to do. It’s a typical “Lily Livered Liberal” concept that we must find love and peace in agreement and consensus first. I maintain that we’ve tried that.
So it’s a fight. It’s not a debate. And if it’s a fight, what do we remember from the Blitzkrieg to General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr in the Gulf War? It’s overwhelming force that wins. Most shifts in political policy have been a matter of one side overwhelming the other. For example, when Walter Cronkite (a media elite) turned against the war in Vietnam, and there were also millions marching in the streets. So maybe the energy should be spent on moving the concerned and the middle to more action rather than persuading conservatives.
Perhaps this is what is happening in the “Resist” movement. But resistance is a tactic and not a strategy. The nature of the word is that we are against something as opposed to “for something.” Rather we should be talking about the “Join Us” movement. “Join Us” for clean energy. “Join Us” for the climate.
The progressive left and environmentalists are not very well equipped to mount a sustained campaign on the climate crisis. We tend to be disjointed on our messaging. We focus on the small individual issues rather than the big issues of climate and bad energy policy.
In the long run, environmentalists are the right side of history. The facts are there. The climate is changing. We will win. The question is will we win soon enough by trying to reach consensus? What will be left of our “winnings”?
Perhaps it’s time to claim and own the issue of the climate and clean energy rather than trying to defend it and persuade conservatives. Here are a couple of things we could do.
- Stop trying to argue science with deniers. This is a waste of time. Just avoid them.
- Focus on getting action out of those that are convinced or concerned about climate but not yet active. Perhaps there is room to include those in the middle as well.
- Change the tenor of the message. What if we painted them as the fossil fuel puppets that there are? Let’s point out the fact that conservatives have been misled, manipulated and lied to. Let’s use shame. Let us point out that they are not deniers but deceivers and those that follow them are deceived. Then let’s offer them a path.
- Increase the intensity of the fight. Let’s do it loudly, consistently, pervasively and with the moral indignation that it deserves. Let’s get as many of our friends involved as we can, rather than convert the deceived.
I am struck by the image of Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. I don’t believe he was successful reasoning with racists. While he believed in non-violence, he was a warrior as well.
We Are All Connected. Savor the Earth!
L. Hobart Stocking
* Apologizing is a very liberal trait.
*Apologizing is a very liberal trait.