How to talk to conservatives about climate change

The consensus on how problematic climate change is on the left end of the political spectrum is pretty resolute: They see it as the problem of the century.

The consensus for many conservatives is just as resolute, albeit a little less impassioned, falling somewhere between, “So what?” and climate change being a left-wing authoritarian conspiracy.

Granted, this perception was created by viewing online debates on the subject, which as we all know, definitely don’t highlight the most extreme opinions on each end of the political spectrum.


However, the general trends I’ve been seeing across more conservative spaces online (outside of Infowars or Fox News) is a genuine sense of disenfranchisement with the issue.

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They understand that climate change is bad, most sensible people do. But the issue seems to be the pundits that are put up to push the issues onto the general public.
Rather, it’s how the problem is conveyed to the general public that seems to turn right-wingers off faster than picturing Donald Trump in a thong.

The problem with moralizing the climate crisis:

No-one likes to be lectured at. No-one likes to be told they're part of a problem solely by going about their day to day. Life is pretty hard as it is. Especially for the everyday person. The last thing you want to think about while bills go through the roof, the property ladder slips continuously out of reach, and your job market becomes ever narrower is that the planet is on fire. Or worse yet, that you’re part of the reason it’s on fire because you decided to eat out at McDonalds twice in a row last week. And when that opinion comes from a group of people gluing themselves to the tarmac of the motorway you use to drive to work, or from a teenager yelling at you from the podium of a UN conference, it only makes it easier for you to dismiss the problem out of hand. Emotive actions tend to yield emotive responses. If someone on the street started yelling at you all the reasons why you’re a bad person, you’d likely start yelling back. You’re also far less likely to try and engage that person to figure out any kind of common ground - which is exactly what is needed to fight the climate crisis at full tilt. And in relation to climate change, it makes the opinions of smartly dressed, well-spoken, climate deniers that much more attractive to the average joe or jane. Even though when it comes to the collective well-being of the entire planet, they don’t have your interests in mind at all. There was a very recent example of this that went viral was an interview that went on between MP Jacob Rees-Mogg and a Just Stop Oil activist, Phoebe Plumber.

The interview quickly heated up, as Mogg made several dismissive and critical comments of Just Stop Oil’s activist practices, challenging Plumber on how we can realistically “just stop oil” without bringing the world economy grinding to a halt.

To which, Plumber had no direct answers aside from “I’m not a scientist” and several appeals to morality, such as, “people are dying”, or “think of your children”.

While from a scientific standpoint, Plumber is right, this sort of emotions-based appeals sadly have the opposite effect that you’d want them to have. You can be sympathetic to it, after all, scientists have been presenting data year after year about the damage that we’re doing to the planet and it seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

But when rhetoric becomes impassioned and emotional, it puts more of a sense of control in the hands of people who favour inaction in the climate crisis, because they appear more measured, controlled, and sensible.

And in many ways, their position is far more comfortable and attractive. Rather than advocating for a radical change to our economies, systems of governance, and lifestyles, what Mogg and others like him are suggesting is that stability and lack of change are okay.

The current “popular” climate solutions don’t speak to conservative values:

Here’s a little insight into what many conservatives hear when you talk about specific climate issues.
  1. We need smarter systems of transportation.” - “You want me to get rid of my car.”
  2. “Air travel needs to be reduced.” - “You’re trying to make my next holiday unaffordable - or even canceled.”
  3. “We need more policies to protect the planet.” - “You’re trying to restrict my freedoms.”
  4. “We need to consume more plant-based foods.” - “You’re trying to regulate my diet.
And the reason that this happens is because of who is delivering this message and the tone of the message itself.
A lot of the rhetoric is about restriction: “Reducing fossil fuel consumption”, “Eating less meat”, “Going on fewer holidays”.
And in a very red, white, and blue way - this is anathema to anyone who holds individual liberty very close to their heart. But is this really because climate change is a tree-hugging, hippie-attracting, intersectional, ultra-progressive, communist movement?
Many conservatives see it marketed as such - but the reality is that it isn’t. The climate crisis represents challenges but also massive opportunities and that’s where it currently needs a correction in messaging.

The four tenets of conservative values:

"A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it." - William F. Buckley Jr., conservative intellectual.
To really get to grips with how climate action and climate arguments can be made to appeal to the average climate skeptic or conservative, I believe we need to change the narrative from that of life-threatening moralization to that of long-term opportunities.
Defacing world-famous art or spraying a building with orange paint while chanting “Just stop oil” while effective to an extent, are sadly now doing more harm than good.
At best, they’re going to make people laugh and sneer at you, and at worst, they’re going to push people ever further away from climate action.
So, here are some frameworks you can use to understand how a conservative mind tends to think:
Preference for stability and tradition: Conservatives often value the stability and continuity provided by existing social, economic, and political systems.
They believe that long-standing institutions and traditions have evolved over time and embody the wisdom of the past. They may view changes to the status quo as disruptive, potentially leading to unintended consequences and undermining societal order.
Skepticism of rapid change: Conservatives tend to be cautious about rapid or radical transformations, preferring incremental and gradual modifications. They argue that abrupt changes can disregard historical context, disregard potential negative consequences, and fail to consider the unintended impact on established values and social structures.
Value preservation: Conservatives generally prioritize the preservation of traditional values, cultural norms, and institutions. They often view societal changes as eroding these values, potentially leading to a loss of social cohesion, moral relativism, or dilution of cultural identity. Consequently, they may resist changes that challenge or deviate from their perceived core values.
Limited government intervention: Many conservatives advocate for limited government intervention and emphasize individual freedom and personal responsibility.
They may be skeptical of policy changes that increase the scope of government involvement, seeing them as encroachments on individual liberties and free-market dynamics.
Changes to the status quo that involve government regulations or interventions may face resistance from conservatives who prioritize limited government involvement.
With these values in mind, it’s actually really easy to see why conservatives tend towards an aversion to climate action.
To many of them, it’s a government-mandated upheaval of the systems, values, and structures that they’ve lived in their entire lives.
Then, when that opinion is touted by leaders who routinely do the opposite of what they’re preaching, either with a private jet or an under-the-table oil deal, it becomes even harder to come onside for climate action.
Now obviously, this is painting the situation with a very broad brush. Not all conservatives or right-leaning people feel this way about climate action.
Not all conservatives are pro-life or pro second amendment. Despite what online social media platforms would have you believe, people are capable of many nuanced opinions.
But when it comes to an issue like climate change, which should be the most impartial, objective and logical issue to have an opinion on, you need to take note when an entire wing of political thought is feeling disenfranchised.
At this point, if you’re still reading that is, you might be asking: So, what can we do about this?
The answer: Make climate action appeal to a conservative mind.

The opportunities of the climate crisis:

There was a time in the early 20th century where the idea of a single person using a petrol-powered vehicle to travel from place to place by themselves was laughable.
During the early days of automobiles, they were considered expensive, unreliable, and difficult to operate and maintain. Many people were accustomed to horse-drawn carriages, and the idea of motorized vehicles seemed strange and impractical.
A famous newspaper article published in the States, for example, told automobile fans to just “Get a horse!”.
Now, that sort of skepticism seems dated and even a little bit funny. But the same pattern is repeating now… only the problem is that it’s at the expense of the planet.
Worse, the opportunities that come with a green transition are easily overshadowed by over-emotional rhetoric and doomsday warnings.
When the reality is, there are limitless opportunities and benefits to a green transition that would get any frontier libertarian to give a standing ovation.
From energy independence, natural preservation, technological innovation, green sector jobs, increased life expectancy, and lower energy costs.
And we also get to save the planet. The issue as I see it is that the entire argument has become a polarized political position, like gun control or pro-choice vs pro-life.

Is the climate crisis a marketing problem?

We need to reclaim the opportunities of the climate crisis if we’re going to make a total shift globally towards a greener society.
Like it or not, too, we need every end of the political spectrum on-side to solve it. So, maybe, the best solution is to change how we’re currently communicating the problem… by seeing it as ONLY a problem.
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