THE ELECTION OF TRUMP HIGHLIGHTS the extreme political polarisation in the United States, and few issues are as tribal as climate change. From near bipartisanship in the 1970s, views on global warming among Republicans and Democrats diverged in the 1980s and widened into a chasm under Obama.
A Pew survey before the 2016 US election found 66 per cent of Clinton supporters said climate change was ‘a very big problem’, but only 14 per cent of Trump voters. This partisan divide has been remarkably stable, and it’s resistant to education levels. A study by Yale psychologist Daniel Kahan shows people who score higher in scientific literacy and numeracy are actually more culturally polarised about climate change.
In Australia, we’re not quite at this level of entrenched division, but political ideology still plays a role. From 2010-2014 the CSIRO surveyed Australians about their attitudes to climate change and found people with more left-wing orientations were ‘more likely to be sure climate change was happening, were more worried about it, and thought it more important’. ALP voters were more likely to believe climate change was human caused than Liberal voters.
So what’s going on?
Kahan, who leads Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project in the US, argues that the environment in which climate science is communicated has become ‘polluted’ with ‘toxic partisan meanings’. ‘Positions on climate change have come to signify the kind of person one is.’ They’re a badge of belonging, and we tend to conform with the views of our chosen clique.
If climate change were a short-term problem, polarisation wouldn’t be so crippling. One side could push a solution through parliament, and by the time the other side took power it might be a non-issue.
But climate change is an extraordinarily long-term problem that requires massive investment in new infrastructure and consistent policy settings over many decades. It needs a supermajority of support so years of work isn’t undone with each change of government. That means getting conservatives on board.
But how? Climate change has become largely a symbol of the Left. This was partly unavoidable. It’s a natural fit with the progressive narrative of reform, the one that says our Western industrial way of life has deep flaws and needs a major overhaul. Carbon dioxide spreads through the atmosphere, ignoring arbitrary national boundaries, so the theory of global warming promotes a globalist and universalist outlook. The most logical solution is international regulation, which some conservatives see as undermining the sovereignty of nation states.
Not to mention that the very existence of human-caused climate change is a damning indictment of unfettered capitalism and, in the words of economist Sir Nicholas Stern, represents ‘the greatest market failure the world has seen’. Imagine you’re a neoliberal conservative. How would you react to a theory that contradicts your most cherished beliefs?
On top of that, climate change entered the political arena through the lens of environmentalism and is still associated with a countercultural green movement. From early on, progressives proposed solutions that, while logical, also happened to reinforce their worldview (government intervention) and put forward arguments that appealed to their idea of what is persuasive (secular and rational discourse).
Even the measurements carry cultural baggage: environment NGOs argue that the ‘fairest’ way to compare emissions is per capita, which is premised on the ethics of egalitarianism, whereas conservatives tend to have a more hierarchal worldview. Then, when progressives finally realised they needed a more morally compelling argument, they chose messages that were morally compelling to them: a focus on vulnerable victims (stranded polar bears and poor Africans), and equality (social justice reimagined as climate justice).
Recent research into morals explains what the climate change story has been missing. In his book The Righteous Mind, psychologist Jonathan Haidt identifies at least five moral foundations found across human societies: care, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. In surveys, progressives emphasise the first two morals — care and fairness — and downplay or reject the importance of the rest, whereas conservatives hold all five morals. Haidt argues progressives in Western democracies actually have a narrow palette of moral tastes, which explains why they find some conservative obsessions — such as concerns that ethnic diversity tears apart communities — so baffling.
They also misjudge conservatives as lacking compassion. Conservatives actually score highly on care, writes Haidt, ‘but conservative caring is somewhat different — it is aimed not at animals or at people in other countries but at those who’ve sacrificed for the group’. So while progressives fret over subsistence farmers exposed to sea level rise in low-lying Bangladesh, conservatives worry first about loyal, local people — people like them.
How is the Left responding to this problem of polarisation? As in so many fields, ideas are imported from the US. One of the most influential thinkers is cognitive linguist George Lakoff. His bestselling book Don’t Think of An Elephant argues that most people are ‘biconceptual’ — they have both progressive and conservative views — and Democrats should frame issues to trigger progressive morals. The best response to Trump, he writes, is a positive focus on care.
Another major influence is work on psychological values, interpreted through an organisation called Common Cause. NGOs are advised to promote the values of universalism (things like social justice, a world at peace and equality) and benevolence (helpfulness, responsibility), which broadly overlap with progressive morals.
In other words, the strategy to get more people to care about climate change is to get more people to think like progressives. Is that really going to build a supermajority of support?
Haidt’s work suggests morals are more diverse than just care and fairness, especially in traditional and religious societies. It follows that climate change needs a broader palette of appeals because the political pendulum will never remain in the Left corner forever, or even very long. In fact, as an underlying driver of drought and wars over resources, climate change could trigger more conservative values. Threats from outsiders can activate loyalty to your own group and desire for authority. Support for action on climate change needs to survive periods of conservative rule, and that means it also needs a conservative vision and conservative values — even if progressives find their suggestions repugnant.
To paraphrase climate change communication expert George Marshall, it’s time for progressives to back off, drop the eco-stuff, and encourage some climate conservatives to step up to the podium.