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How We Can Save Ourselves

About half of the people in America are convinced that the election of Donald Trump will bring about the demise of racial, gender, and religious equality as well as destroy the social safety net for the poor, ill, and elderly and destroy the planet by ignoring climate change. The other half is not concerned about these things, or at least does not feel that a Trump presidency threatens them. Liberals, who comprise the half that is fearful, are looking for a way to stop the destruction they see coming. 

Most of us assume that these differences represent either different values or a different information base for liberals and conservatives. Probably they represent both. Jonathan Haidt has shown that liberals and conservatives differ on the way they interpret different moral dimensions and the relative importance of each of them. For instance, conservatives value loyalty (to one’s country, for instance) and clear evidence of it, such as standing for the national anthem or displaying the flag, more highly than do liberals. Similarly, they value adherence to and respect for authority (police, law and order, the military) more highly than do liberals. On the other hand, both groups value fairness equally, but define it differently. Liberals mean that everyone has an equal opportunity and gets their fair share. Conservatives mean than everyone gets back what they put into the system and no one gets a “free ride.”

Many of the political issues that divide our country are related to these differences in values between liberals and conservatives. This is particularly true of those that are related to religion (gay rights, abortion), equality (tax structure, entitlement programs), and authority (law and order, criminal justice reform). But some issues are only tangentially related to such values (foreign policy, for instance) or not at all (climate change and the environment). However, despite this, positions on these latter issues do differ depending upon whether one is a political liberal or conservative. Why is that?

A scientific study by Kahan et al  sheds some light on why liberals and conservatives may differ on issues such as the danger of climate change or of the use of nuclear energy. They tested alternative explanations as to why people differed in their assessment of the perceived threat of man-made climate change. One possible explanation was that  there were differences based upon whether one was oriented toward and literate in science, i.e. perhaps people who feared climate change were simply better informed and more knowledgeable about the scientific information. The other possible explanation was that people form perceptions of risk and threat based upon their desire to have beliefs that are compatible with the groups with which they identify, i.e. they want to fit in with those they perceive as their peers.

What Kahan et al found was startling. Those with greater science literacy were actually less concerned about climate change. What they did find was that when they divided study participants into those who were high on valuing “a hierarchical, individualistic world-view—one that ties authority to conspicuous social rankings and eschews collective interference with the decisions of individuals possessing such authority” versus those who “hold an egalitarian, communitarian world-view—one favouring less regimented forms of social organization and greater collective attention to individual needs,” these values more accurately predicted individual’s assessment of the danger of climate change than did their scientific literacy. These dimensions are similar to Haidt’s conservative value of authority and liberal value of fairness. They found a similar result when they assessed fears about the use of nuclear energy.


Why would seemingly irrelevant value dimensions have a greater effect on opinions on an issue such as climate change than scientific orientation and literacy? The researchers conjectured that people tend to form their opinions on issues involving risk based upon wanting to fit into the group with which they identify, not based upon assessment of the information relevant to the risk assessment. In other words, if one holds conservative values on a range of issues such as entitlements, respect for authority, religion, etc., then one is going to go along with the attitude of one’s peers on an issue such as climate change. Similarly if someone is politically and socially liberal, then he or she will go along with that group’s opinion on climate change.


So people may form opinions in order to conform to the dominant opinions of the group with which they identify. But this leaves in question, why liberals fear climate change and conservatives do not, in the first place. Efforts to bring man-made climate change under control require massive governmental regulation of industry, both on a national scale and globally. Such regulation is a core issue dividing conservatives and liberals. Persons who value rugged entrepreneurialism, freedom from government interference, social and nearly unlimited economic rewards for those who rise to the top in industry, are going to be conservative and they are going to be opposed to government regulation. That’s who American conservatives are. If you belong to that group, even if you are scientifically and technically literate and informed, you will be less concerned about climate change because your fellow conservatives, who know that such concern will mean giving in to greater government regulation, are not concerned about climate change. Furthermore, when you look around and see who is concerned about climate change you find that it’s people who are in favor of taxing the rich, who support gay rights and abortion rights, people who are adamantly opposed to discrimination against religious or ethnic minorities, etc. These are not your kind of people.


I’m exaggerating of course. Half of Americans are conservative, but recent polls have found that 64% of Americans are concerned about climate change. People are not so doctrinaire in their opinions as the labels used to classify them would imply. But concern about climate change per se, shed of its conservative or liberal connotations, or its connection to the issue of government regulation, ought to characterize nearly all Americans. If it did—if 80% of Americans were worried about it instead of 64%—then it would be much easier to pass legislation to reduce greenhouse gases, and much harder for a president to defy international agreements such as the one formulated in Paris.


So how do we get 80% of Americans to support action to reduce climate change? First of all we must disentangle it from the polarizing labels of a conservative or liberal cause. We liberals must not identify climate change as our cause and we must not identify climate denial as a conservative cause. That means finding liberals who deny climate change and conservatives who don’t and showing that there is no contradiction in such people existing (I suspect it will be easier to find conservatives who  believe in climate change than to find liberals who don’t, and maybe that will be enough). Second, we liberals must stop demonizing conservatives and their values, as that just pushes people more tightly together and into a corner from which it is difficult to escape to accept a different view. Third, we need to demonstrate, to the extent possible, that the kinds of regulations necessary to protect the environment are compatible with industry growth and are not excessively onerous. One thing this entails is accepting regulatory measures that fall short of what we would like to see, but are an improvement over what we have now. Excessive criticism of agreements such as the Paris accords because they don't go far enough, may express a truth, but it also scares away those who might join in supporting them. Another thing is to find captains of industry (or put more effort into persuading them) who will support regulation and who buy into the concern about global warming. CEOs of the auto industry might be a good start, since their changes, such as hybrid, fuel-cell and electric cars,  have both made massive changes in auto-caused pollutants and  contributed to financial success of the industry. Such people would have a much stronger effect on the opinion of conservative climate change skeptics than do traditional liberal political leaders such as President Obama, or environmental groups such as the Sierra Club. Finally, we should stop the self-righteous vituperative assault on people who don’t agree with us on this issue. Again, we are driving people into their own corner when we insist they be called climate change “deniers” rather than skeptics, or when we propose that climate change denial should be a crime,  or promote suing the oil companies for not telling us about climate concerns, or when we insult the intelligence of those who disagree with us on the issue.


Climate change is not inherently a conservative or liberal issue. It has become one for reasons I outlined above (and for a minority, for religious reasons), but still most Americans already are concerned about it. It may be the greatest danger we as a human race are facing, and we only have to convince a tiny percentage more of Americans to believe it before public opinion becomes overwhelming. This is our chance to do as much as we can to avert a terrible disaster. We need to mount a smart campaign to change public opinion. This means separating the issue from the rest of the polarizing positions that have Americans at each other’s throats.


I am not spouting empty rhetoric. I mean these suggestions seriously. If we want to change public opinion, we can’t be focused on satisfying our own egos by stating our opinion in some extreme fashion, or mounting a protest that alienates everyone who disagrees with us, or talking only to those who agree with us, or retreating from the public arena and growing our own gardens, or using only catastrophic language that is easily dismissed by those who don’t buy into our arguments. We have to be smart, strategic and tactical and use the powers of public persuasion.


So stop yelling at each other and start thinking about how we could actually make this happen.




Haidt, Jonathan : The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon (2012) 


Kahan, Dan M., Peters, Ellen, Wittlin, Maggie, Ouellette, Lisa Larrimore, Braman, Donald, Mandel, Gregory. “The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks” Nature Climate Change, 2012, Vol 2, No. 10


Reader Comments (1)

Four quick points that I'll expand upon on one of my blog posts later, Casey. (I decided my answers to you are so long, I'll make them into blog posts linking to your posts!
1. I love how much you research your articles.
2. George Lakoff, Berkely a cognitive linguist at Berkeley who is best known for his thesis that lives of individuals are significantly influenced by the central metaphors they use to explain complex phenomena, has written about "frames" that influence opinion. His most memorable fram is "tax relief". Using "relief" implies taxes are affliction rather than our obligations as citizens. So your example that using the term climate change “deniers” rather than skeptics would fit right in.
3. Your articles are forcing me to examine my response to the election and soften it.
4. I do think that those of us who did not vote for Trump are going through Kubler-Ross' stages of grief - not because we lost, but because of HOW.(I'll explain that later in my post). So we will go back and forth during a period of time between anger, denial, bargaining, and finally acceptance. I think the switch between these emotions happens minute by minute or hour by hour in a day depending on what new news is released. Of course, the overall point of your article is well taken. Name-calling is NEVER acceptable and separates us. Excellent article, as usual!

November 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBillie Kelpin

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