“We need to make it okay to talk about, even if it’s just having a conversation with someone you care about”
The American people just elected an outspoken climate-change denier as president. So does that mean the climate conversation is closed for the next four years? Of course not. President-elect Donald “I’m not a big believer in climate change” Trump wasn’t elected for his anti-climate action rhetoric. Rather, he was elected despite it.
Americans across the political spectrum say they are concerned about climate change and want a federal government to take action. A full 70 percent of the American public considers it a “high priority” for the government to take steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions, according to a recent survey from the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland. And a March Gallup poll found that 64 percent of Americans worried either a “great deal” or a “fair amount” about global warming.
Via Gallup Poll
Those numbers are a lot higher than the popular vote supporting either candidate.
But in a presidential election, poll after poll revealed that climate change simply isn’t yet a top priority for voters. (Among the issues voters said would influence their vote for President in 2016, global warming ranked 19th in importance of the 23 issues asked about, according to a Yale and George Mason University study.)
“Most people, even people who are supporters of Trump, they do not have a view that this is not an issue, not a problem, and nothing should be done about it,” says Steven Kull, who led the Maryland research. “Most have the sense, ‘Well, maybe there’s some problem, maybe we should take some steps, it’s probably worth it, the cost is not that high.’”
Recently, GOOD’s Stacey Leasca covered how to talk to a climate change denier in the Trump Era. But how can we talk about climate change to that broad range of the population that is concerned, even very concerned, but maybe don’t fully comprehend the urgency of the threat? How can we make it a top-tier election issue? And how can we talk to the American public about climate change in this time my friend Graham Readfearn calls the Trumpocene?
Americans don’t talk about climate change. It simply doesn’t come up in normal conversation and it isn’t something people hear about in their everyday lives. A group of researchers at the Yale Program of Climate Change Communication have dubbed this the “spiral of silence”—a social psychological quirk “in which even people who care about the issue, shy away from discussing it because they so infrequently hear other people talking about it – reinforcing the spiral.”
Even people who have great concern about climate change tend to talk around the issue, perhaps focusing on renewable energy solutions or hinting ambiguously about weird weather. This is a problem, explains Cara Pike, Executive Director of Climate Access. “Conversations about climate change with friends and family just aren’t happening,” Pike told me, “and we need to make it okay to talk about, even if it’s just having a conversation with someone you care about, to say you’re concerned about it.” Why not take the more comfortable route and talk about all the jobs that solar and wind create and how cool Tesla is? “If we leave climate out of the conversation,” Pike explains, “people don’t understand the scale of the problem, or the scale of the solutions that are necessary.”
Out of all the post-election assessments and postmortems, one lesson is inarguable: that the political establishment and Washington elites are dangerously out of touch with the wants and needs of the American people. On the eve of the election, Trump advisor Sarah Huckabee Sanders put the choice to the American people in terms that sounded like typical campaign rhetoric, but seems now a defining message: “I think that the choice tomorrow could not be more clear...the corrupt status quo versus change.”
Trump voters, like many Bernie Sanders supporters in the primary, were casting a ballot for an end to the status quo.
Nothing in America is more “status quo” than the fossil fuel industry. Coal, oil, and gas have been a dominant force in our economy—and the political system—for close to a century. Much of Congress (which itself is polling at historic lows) is essentially a funded legislative arm of the fossil fuel industry. According to NoFossilFuelMoney.org, fossil fuel companies contributed $29.6 million to Congressional candidates in the 2016 election cycle, $29.1 million of which went to incumbents. “This data shows fossil fuel companies are investing heavily in the status quo,” said Brant Olson, director of ClimateTruth.org Action, which launched the database. “They are betting big on incumbents to maintain a Congress that’s friendly to dirty energy, and in the process, robbing the American people of clean energy jobs and a safe climate future.”
It’s a little understood fact that renewable energy employs more workers per unit of energy than fossil fuels. The status quo of fossil fuel dominance has been one of the chief causes of the depressed economic conditions that gave way to Trump’s rise in the Rust Belt. A transition to renewable energy and energy efficiency can bring real economic value to these communities that have been abandoned by the boom-and-bust trends of fossil fuel extraction and refining and industry.
Kathy Washienko of Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions emphasizes that the very real promise of local empowerment is key. Consider this, from a guide that Washienko and colleagues developed after years of research on climate messaging:
“Investing in clean energy means investing in our own communities and taking charge of our own energy. Instead of subsidizing big oil, we invest in wind turbines on farms, solar on our roofs, and schools that use less energy – creating local jobs, stronger communities and a more stable climate.”
It’s crucial, Washienko explains, to talk not only of the hope, but also of the very real progress that has already been made, and that this transition to a low-carbon future is already improving the economic wellbeing and strength of local communities. Solar jobs are growing faster than any other energy sector, for instance, and there are today more solar workers in the country than in oil and gas combined.
The solution—taking control of energy systems—is just one point on an effective messaging triangle. To most effectively convey a coherent narrative, a conversation should pivot to the threat itself: the impacts of climate change. And then to the villain, or the fossil fuel industry that is keeping us anchored to the status quo.
Nobody is saying it’s easy, though, to break through the spiral of silence. How can you open up climate conversations to people who don’t want to say the “c-word”? “You have to shape it around the concerns that people already have right now,” says Pike. “How do they see the world and what do they care about?”
So, consider the audience. Just as clean energy jobs can open a conversation with the economically disenfranchised that have been abandoned by the fossil fuel economy, different themes resonate with different people. Like, for instance…
From the groundbreaking work of evangelical climate scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe to the organizing of Interfaith Power and Light chapters across the United States, the moral religious call for climate action has been steadily building over the past decade. Spiritual leaders from essentially every faith—Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Evangelical Christian, and more—have released strong statements or declarations on the importance of caring for the climate. Perhaps none impacted more observers than Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate and the environment, Laudato Si’, on care for our common home. Through the encyclical and multiple masses, Pope Francis has emphasized the impact of climate change on poor and vulnerable people, and has issued to Catholics a twofold moral challenge: care for creation and care for those in need.
Since 9/11, national security has been one of the top concerns of the American public. It probably comes as some surprise to most Main Street or back roads Americans, but the military has emerged as one of the strongest voices for climate action. Last year, a statement signed by more than a dozen former senior military and national security officials, including General Anthony Zinni, former commander of the U.S. Central Command, put it plainly:
“One thing is clear: the current trajectory of climatic change presents a strategically significant risk to U.S. national security, and inaction is not a viable option.”
“To the military, climate change acts as a threat multiplier, exacerbating threats in already unstable regions of the world. In the security world, decisions are made by a careful evaluation of risk. And climate change is the mother of all risks,” Powers explained.
If family or colleagues are anxious about war or terrorism, it might be a logical time to mention that a bipartisan group of 48 national security and foreign policy leaders—including three former Secretaries of Defense and two former Secretaries of State—recently issued a statement urging the highest levels of American government to take domestic and international action to fight climate change.
It’s pretty simple: parents want nothing more than for their children to be healthy and for them to have a bright future. Last year, while on a rare week away from my little ones, I was stunned when a climate scientist said to me, earnestly, “I’m not so confident that anyone will be dying of natural causes by 2100.” That’s on the outer bounds of the life expectancy for any child born today, and even my two toddlers. Scary, sobering stuff.
But we don’t need to wait until the end of the century to see serious health impacts of climate change—in fact, they’re already a clear and present danger. The World Health Organization’s Director General has called climate change “one of the greatest health risks of the 21st century,” and the 2015 Lancet Commission reports that climate change poses “an unacceptably high and potentially catastrophic risk to human health.” From deadly heat waves to the spread of infectious disease from mosquito-borne illnesses that are reaching to new regions, there’s a lot to worry about, and children tend to be among the most vulnerable.
There are dozens of points of entry for breaking the spiral of silence and engaging on climate change. Talk to hunters and anglers about how warming is shifting habitats and devastating fish populations. Talk to farmers, who are already seeing the impacts with every growing season, about drought and pest spread and crop loss. Talk to skiers about shorter winters, or high school football coaches about scorching summers that last through October. The vast majority of Americans want to do something about climate change, even many of those who voted Trump. They probably don’t talk about it much, but they probably have plenty to say about how it impacts them and the people and things they care about.