How to Tap Latent Conservative Support for Climate-Change Policy

By Sean McElwee

Both last month's Senate Climate Talkathon and Tom Steyer’s $100 million dollar pledge to back environment-friendly candidates indicate the same thing: Democrats are getting serious about global warming again. But even when Democrats have managed to close ranks behind previous legislative efforts like Waxman-Markey, Republicans have stymied them. Can the left forge a coalition to tackle the problem?

The environment was once a bipartisan issue. The 1970 Clean Air Act, the 1972 Clean Water Act, and the 1973 Endangered Species Act were all passed with bipartisan support, as was legislation strengthening those acts in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, the environment has become increasingly divisive. Data from the Pew Research Center show that the decrease in support for environmental protection is not only very recent but also one-sided:
 

Despite that decline, Republican support for environmental causes is stronger than it might appear. Two Ph.D. students at the University of California Santa Barbara, Phillip Ehret and Aaron Sparks, found that a quarter of individuals self-identifying as “very conservative” or “conservative” support environmental regulations, even if they risk harming the economy. A Yale Study finds that 85 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans favor “regulating CO2 as a pollutant" and majorities from both parties favor investing in renewable energy. If Republican voters are concerned about the environment, haven’t we seen an action?

One explanation is that the framing of environmental issues is often anathema to conservatives. Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer’s important paper on the subject, “The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes,” finds that liberals view environmental issues as moral concerns informed by a harm principle, while conservatives view environmental issues through the lens of purity, and particularly for religious people, stewardship.     

In 1971’s Octogesima Adveniens, Pope Paul VI laid out a religious case for protecting the environment, using the language of responsibility, duty to future generations, and purity—in other words, the conservative framing under Feinberg and Willer’s standards:

Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation … thus creating an environment for tomorrow which may well be intolerable .... The Christian must turn to these new perceptions in order to take on responsibility, together with the rest of men, for a destiny which from now on is shared by all.

In his 2006 “Letter to a Southern Baptist Pastor,” E.O. Wilson showed how to use the religious framing in defense of the environment:

You have the power to help solve a great problem about which I care deeply. I hope you have the same concern. I suggest that we set aside our differences in order to save the Creation. The defense of living nature is a universal value. It doesn’t rise from, nor does it promote, any religious or ideological dogma. Rather, it serves without discrimination the interests of all humanity. Pastor, we need your help. The Creation—living nature—is in deep trouble.

The environmental movement has stumbled because it has not framed the issue as Wilson and Paul VI did. A 2012 study by Matthew C. Nisbet, Ezra M. Markowitz, and John E. Kotcher found that climate campaigns overwhelming frame the issue in terms of harm and care, fairness, and oppression of marginalized groups. These frames fall into what Feinberg and Willer would consider left-wing frames, alienating conservatives.

Adopting a more conservative framing wouldn’t lead to liberals winning more elections. More likely, moderate Republican and centrist thought leaders could make green policy a bipartisan initiative of the sort that was common during the Eisenhower, Nixon, and Bush Sr. days. There are already right-leaning pro-environment groups, like Atlanta’s Green Tea Coalition and Ducks Unlimited. That’s unlikely to be enough to bridge the divide. Because people are more likely to respond to arguments made by someone within their community than outside of it, progress depends on more Republican voices.

But Republican thought leaders and policymakers have abandoned the environment in droves. ThinkProgress calculates that 56 percent of Republicans in the current congress deny anthropogenic global warming. Among the general public, 26 percent of adults don't believe global warming is real (although only 11 percent of Democrats do, versus 46 percent of Republicans and an astonishing 70 percent of Tea Partiers). Deborah Guber, a professor at University of Vermont, argues that there has been a concerted effort among right-leaning elites to downplay the environmental issue. “Partisan conflicts are not inherent in the subject of climate change,” she writes. “Party sorting seems to occur only as citizens acquire information and become familiar with elite cues.” This helps explain the lack of political movement, despite evidence that conservative voters are concerned about the degradation of the environment.

Guber notes the infamous 2003 Frank Luntz memo arguing that the environment was the issue on which Republicans were most vulnerable. “The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science,” Luntz wrote. “A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.” Funders took Luntz’s idea and ran with it—with impressive success. A Drexel University study released in December bolsters the idea of a concerted denial campaign led by elites. The survey found that the climate-denial movement consists of 91 organizations supported by 140 primarily conservative foundations.

“The Republicans and (at least a large part of) the business community are against doing anything about climate change, because doing something about it would mean government intervention in the economy, which is ideologically bad but also having tangible and real economic costs on certain segments of the business world,” Benjamin Radcliff, a professor of politics at Notre Dame, told me.

Regulating greenhouse gases would hurt some big businesses. If IPCC estimates are correct, some 80 percent of existing fossil fuel reserves must remain unused. That presents a risk for companies like Koch Industries and Exxon Mobil—companies whose donations give them an outsize influence on the political process. Recently, Exxon said it is "highly unlikely” that governments would implement policies to significantly reduce emissions. (Just to be sure, the company has donated millions to climate denial groups.)

Tom Steyer’s example aside, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page find “that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” And elites are less likely to be concerned about climate change than other citizens. Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright have found that the issue ranks below “the loss of traditional values,” budget deficits, and inflation among policy priorities for the wealthy. While the wealthy in their study generally favored reducing spending on the environment (the difference between “expanded” and “cut back” was -8) the public strongly favored increasing spending (+29).  

Internationally, the environment isn’t so polarized. Right-leaning politicians like David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy have embraced the environment, and Angela Merkel won reelection in part by promising to phase out nuclear energy in favor of renewables. And within the U.S., some Democratic governors in red states have had success pursuing environmental issues. In Wyoming, the most conservative state in the country, Dave Freudenthal’s administration focused on a long-term strategy for resource extraction that included, among other things, preserving the state’s forests and regulating hydraulic fracking. The result: a reelection margin of 20 percent and a reputation as one of the most popular governors in the country, including 66 percent approval among Republicans.

But at the national level in the United States, environmental progress has been stymied by elites with a vested interest in fostering denial and the economic means to do so. This is not an easily surmountable challenge, but the polling reveals that underlying support offers hope for moving climate-change policy forward; and unlike hot-button issues like abortion or gay rights, the policy solutions are well agreed-upon. Yet the environmental movement has not helped itself by framing the issue in terms that appeal mostly to the converted. Activists will find more success if they focus on promoting sanctity and responsibility, showing how protecting the environment is economically beneficial and leaving a legacy for future generations.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/04/how-to-tap-latent-conservative-support-for-climate-change-policy/360911/