How to engage U.S. conservatives on climate change - relate it to their own values and beliefs How do we reach the large minority of Americans that continue to resist the facts about climate change? One way to encourage behavior change may be to work within the belief system of climate deniers. We may even need to employ a communications strategy that ignores climate change altogether.

There are a significant number of Americans who are not acting to address climate change and many of these people are not swayed by science.  The most recent polls show that only 55 percent of Americans are worried about climate change. That means that there are 45 percent of Americans who do not believe that climate change is a global priority.

The lion’s share of resistance to climate change comes from conservatives and libertarians. Rather than working to change people’s ideological frame of reference, it may be more expedient to encourage behavioral change by employing the constructs of people’s preexisting world view. This may be the easiest way to get deniers to change their behavior, even if it does not change their beliefs.

Property Rights

Conservative and libertarian thought are defined by a few basic principles. One of the central tenants of conservative thought concerns property rights. Property rights are a central tenet of conservative thought and may be an effective approach to changing behavior. Property rights may be the key to reaching conservatives and libertarians.

For conservatives and libertarians, property rights constitute the basis of individual liberty and as such they are the primary bulwark against government power.  As conservatives see it, property rights are intertwined with the second amendment and go all the way back to the framing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Sir William Blackstone (1723 – 1780) was an English jurist, judge and Tory politician of the eighteenth century. He is most noted for writing the Commentaries on the Laws of England, an authoritative and influential source of common law for colonists.

Blackstone described private property as one of three absolute rights of individuals (I Blackstone Commentaries 129). He further saw these absolute rights as being protected by the individual’s right to have and use arms for self-preservation and defense.

It is widely recognized in common law that harm done to property warrants redress. The perpetrators of property damage could be forced to assume liability and pay compensation.

This also would apply to impacts from global warming. The property impacts from climate change induced extreme weather or an anticipated sea level rise would entitle owners to compensation. Under such a system, the level of liability would be determined in proportion to the amount of emissions generated.

Revenue Neutral Carbon Tax

Conservatives and libertarians resist regulation on climate issues, but as reviewed on the Volokh Conspiracy, they are likely to be receptive to a revenue neutral carbon tax. Under such a plan, the federal government would impose a price on carbon that is fully rebated to taxpayers on a per capita basis. This tax would be more transparent and it would target energy consumption.

While conservatives oppose increasing the federal tax burden, they tend to support a shift from an income tax to a sales or consumption tax.  According to the logic of such a tax, the atmosphere is a global commons owned by us all, those who use this commons to dispose of their carbon emissions should pay a user fee to compensate those who are affected.

As compared to cap-and-trade, a revenue neutral carbon tax is simpler, more transparent, and less economically burdensome. Perhaps most importantly for Conservatives, a revenue neutral tax would not cede expansive control of the energy sector to government.

Even NASA climatologist James Hansen supports a carbon neutral tax. Rather than subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, Hansen supports a rising fee on carbon emissions to make environmentally harmful energy pay their true costs.

“We need to start reducing emissions significantly, not create new ways to increase them. We should impose a gradually rising carbon fee, collected from fossil fuel companies, then distribute 100 percent of the collections to all Americans on a per-capita basis every month. The government would not get a penny. This market-based approach would stimulate innovation, jobs and economic growth, avoid enlarging government or having it pick winners or losers. Most Americans, except the heaviest energy users, would get more back than they paid in increased prices. Not only that, the reduction in oil use resulting from the carbon price would be nearly six times as great as the oil supply from the proposed pipeline from Canada, rendering the pipeline superfluous, according to economic models driven by a slowly rising carbon price.”

Ignoring Climate Change

Paradoxically, it may be more productive to avoid challenging the confused beliefs of climate deniers. This is the view of director Peter Blyck, the maker of the documentary film ‘Carbon Nation.’ In a recent NPR interview, Blyck expressed his view that the best way to get people to make more environmentally friendly energy choices is to avoid the subject of climate change altogether. Blyck says his “common sense” approach to curbing CO2 emissions is not about changing people’s views on climate change.

Rather than debate the science of climate change, Byck explores common ground on energy issues. For example, he claims that Americans agree on issues like solar and wind energy. According to Byck, 70 percent of Americans claim to love solar energy and 90 percent of Americans like wind energy. Most US citizens also claimed to like geothermal and energy efficiency.

“We aren’t a polarized country, especially when it comes to energy” Byck said. “It’s – I just see too much common ground. I see too much agreement. I just think people aren’t listening. I don’t think people in leadership are listening to the people, and I think a lot of people are being told that they’re polarized, and we are polarized, and they’re acting as if, and that’s the problem. We’re being told we’re polarized so much we don’t actually know that we’re in agreement.”

According to Byck, the fossil fuel industry has succeeded in getting us to debate climate change and this is taking the place of actually doing something about it.  As long as we are talking about it, we won’t do anything about it.

“I mean, just the fact that we’re debating climate change at all is – actually, it’s a victory for the folks in the ’80s and ’90s from the fossil fuel industry who just wanted us to debate it. That was the game plan. It’s the same exact game plan as the tobacco industry…They won. They did a great job. They’re the best storytellers since Shakespeare. They’re brilliant.”

Those who are looking to move beyond the political impasse in Washington need to consider these three approaches. New strategies are essential to build support for meaningful change. If we are to grow support for efforts to combat climate change, we need to find new ways to reach the sizable minority of Americans who resist the facts about climate change.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: David Paul Ohmer, courtesy flickr