How to talk to conservatives about climate change

[Illustration by Maxine McCrann for Mic]

There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is not only real, but caused by humans. That fact has been so solidified that even the United Nations stopped hedging on its language in its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report this year. "It is indisputable that human activities are causing climate change, making extreme climate events including heatwaves, heavy rainfall, and droughts more frequent and severe," the typically staid multinational body said in its sixth IPCC assessment, published earlier this month.

Unfortunately, that clarity is not shared by everyone. Republican voters continue to lag behind the general public in believing the realities of climate change. In 2020, Pew Research found that just 31% of self-identified Republicans believe that climate change is a major threat. Polling earlier this year conducted by Gallup showed the gap between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to climate change is wider than it has ever been. While there is a growing number of young conservatives who believe the climate crisis is real, the fact is that simply isn't going to be enough; a shockingly low 22% of Republicans overall believe that human activity causes climate change.

If we have any shot at avoiding a climate catastrophe and keeping global warming from reaching truly disastrous levels, we're going to need to figure out how to get conservatives on board. That means figuring out why so many are skeptical, learning what information resonates with them, and working to tailor the message in a way that appeals to them. It's easy to dismiss climate deniers out of hand — and their position is factually incorrect — but converting them to the side of science might just be our best hope. Here's how to start.

Realize that climate change isn't as partisan as it seems

The first step is recognizing how we got here in the first place. The thing is, while climate change currently falls along a partisan divide, it wasn't always this way. Republicans used to be at the forefront of the environmental movement — after all, "conserve" is right in the name "conservatives."

Republican President Richard Nixon formed the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 to help unify efforts to combat pollution when it became a growing problem for the U.S. George H.W. Bush ran openly as an environmentalist during his 1988 presidential campaign and was called an "environmental hero" by the Environmental Defense Fund. As recently as the early 1990s, polls showed that about 80% of Americans knew of and believed in climate change and believed that it was a problem that required addressing.

It was around the mid-'90s when that changed. The fossil fuel industry started pouring money into public relations campaigns meant to undermine the prevailing science on climate change. A new wave of conservative commentators, playing up their provocateur personas, picked up on these talking points and ran with them. By the late 1990s, a majority of Republicans rejected the consensus on climate change and opposed policies to address it.

"Propagandists decided this was politically useful, so they polarized it."

"So far the greatest example of politicized science denial has been climate change," Lee McIntyre, a research fellow at Boston University and the author of How to Talk to a Science Denier, tells Mic. "Why? Because someone polarized it." He explains that science denial is often the result of disinformation created by someone with an interest in misleading others. In the case of climate change, it was in the financial interest of oil and energy companies to erode trust in science in order to preserve their profits. It just happened to be conservative pundits and politicians who happened to run with it — and once they started to say "people like us don't believe in climate change," their audience started to follow suit. "Propagandists decided this was politically useful, so they polarized it," he says. "Economic interests morphed into ideological ones."

This polarization can make it difficult for people to break out of their partisan mentalities — and when they do, there is often a price to pay. Just ask Bob Inglis, former congressman from South Carolina. Inglis is a true-red Republican — we're talking the "A"-grade and endorsements from the National Rifle Association, 100% approval ratings from both the anti-choice Christian Coalition of America and the National Right to Life, and a 93% career approval rating from the American Conservative Union.

So how did he get trounced in his 2010 primary against Trey Gowdy? He had the gall to say conservatives should take climate change seriously.

Inglis, who was anything but an environmentalist when he first arrived to the House of Representatives in 1993, credits a trip to Antarctica and the Great Barrier Reef, the prodding of his children, and conversations with conservationists who had dedicated their lives to protecting God's green Earth for his shift from climate skeptic to climate believer. "I got right inspired," he tells Mic of a conversation with oceanographer Scott Heron. "I want to be like Scott, loving God and loving people."

Speak the language

Since leaving Congress, Inglis has invested much of his time into trying to develop what he calls the "eco-right" — a Republican-centric movement that recognizes the realities of climate change and seeks solutions in line with conservative principles. One of the first problems: figuring out how to communicate the science of climate change in a way that would resonate.

"Climate conversations are typically conducted in the language of the left," Inglis says. He describes that language as "communitarian egalitarian," meaning "they believe in community, they focus on community, and they believe in fairness." That language doesn't land the same when it finds its way to conservative ears. Conservatives, he explains, respond to "hierarchical, individualistic language." This is because they "believe in working through a chain of command, and they want to achieve things for themselves, they believe in individual effort and reward." This creates a language barrier that can instantly turn off an audience.

Then-Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) gets on a hydrogen-powered motorcycle in 2005, before a news conference to kick off the new House Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Caucus. [Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images]

Here's a simple example of how Inglis frames it: Say a city wants to charge a fee to dispose of certain goods. Framed as a community effort to pay your fair share to help keep the community clean might make some conservatives recoil — it's a tax on them, after all. But Inglis flips it, making the case for individual accountability. "If you let people fill up the city dump without charging a fee, then the city is subsidizing the waste of somebody who is filling the dump." Charge a fee and people "will govern their deposits, figure out how to reduce and recycle rather than fill up the dump and socialize that cost."

McIntyre also says it's helpful to focus on data. "With conservatives in particular, it helps to emphasize the scientific consensus," he says. "[It] also helps to use graphs," which tend to resonate more with a conservative audience — and there are plenty of graphs that illustrate just how real climate change is.

Find out where their skepticism comes from

Knowing how to speak the language can be key in ultimately figuring out how to target the message, but it's also important to understand where exactly the skepticism is coming from — and if it's actually skepticism at all.

"The most important thing to remember here is the difference between true skepticism and 'motivated reasoning,'" McIntyre explains. "If someone is a genuine skeptic, then that means they will be able to have their doubts overcome with the right evidence."

This is where the shifting perceptions of climate change can be key. Conservatives remain the largest holdouts on the issue, but that is changing, as more Republicans admit that climate change is happening. So it's worth figuring out exactly where their hang-ups are and working to address those specific issues. "If climate skeptics really want to be taken seriously," McIntyre says, "they must say, in advance, what evidence would convince them, and then live by that."

Of course, there are many who are looking for "proof" — which is not quite how science works. "Science is not Euclidian geometry or deductive logic," McIntyre says. "Theories are accepted or rejected based on overwhelming evidence, and that is true for climate change too."

As Inglis notes, many Republicans view the data on climate change as coming from "the U.N., godless scientists, and the Wall Street traders" — groups that have little trust among the party.

This is where you may run into straight denialism, which can come from a number of places. In some cases, it's actually not about the science of the problem as much as the politics of the solutions. "Some people reject the existence of the problem, which sounds irrational until you consider the fact that we all do this every day," Inglis explains. "If a doctor tells you the plan of surgery for your back problem is to take your head off, work on your spine, and put your head back on, you're going to say, 'If that's your solution, I don't have a problem.'"

Inglis argues that some of the early plans to address climate change, like cap-and-trade and deferring to the United Nations for guidance, led to a straight rejection of the problem. The solution wasn't tenable, so then the problem didn't exist.

Of course, the problem does exist. So it's worth going back to square one and establishing that fact before talking about the potential fixes. The politics are going to be a challenge, but the science doesn't have to be.

Establish trust

Another major problem with communicating climate science is a simple lack of trust. As Inglis notes, many Republicans view the data on climate change as coming from "the U.N., godless scientists, and the Wall Street traders" — groups that have little trust among the party. This is made worse by the fact that most conservative news outlets are still largely pushing the talking points of deniers. "We're asking people to depart from Fox News, from Trump, from the terrible pages of the Wall Street Journal editorial section," Inglis says.

The default is doubt, and breaking that requires trust. Getting Republicans to buy into mainstream media sources that they have been told to doubt is a tough road, but an emotional connection can help break through. "I recently heard about a woman whose father denied climate change," McIntyre says. "She did everything to show facts and nothing worked, but then finally said, 'Dad, why do you trust all these strangers on the Internet, but you don't trust your own daughter?' That did the trick."

It's similar to what worked with Inglis, as his kids managed to encourage him to rethink his position. But he also made connections with climate scientists and experts who helped show him the way. That might not be available for everyone (that said: Reach out! You might be surprised who is willing to take the time to answer your questions), but the website Skeptical Science is. Inglis points to this site — the work of climate scientist John Cook — as an essential tool for explaining and understanding the science of climate change. "You can get a quick answer or you can go deeper if you want," Inglis says. "It's a great source."

Know that experience is the best teacher

Unfortunately, for a lot of people, statistics and information are not the teacher that experience is — and experience is coming. While bafflingly many Americans believe they won't feel the effects of climate change, the planet has other ideas, with extreme weather plaguing all parts of the country. "Experience is a particularly effective teacher, often a harsh teacher, and we're all being taught about climate change," Inglis says.

He told a story about speaking at a women's club in South Carolina where several people expressed to him concern about water levels pushing closer to their homes. While he was speaking with them, a person started peppering him with the familiar questions that come from a climate skeptic. "I could see the gentle eye rolls from the women," he says, "They were thinking, 'The water is coming up to our house.'"

Those messages are coming through more loud and clear than ever before. "Sadly, our job is getting easier," Inglis says. The experience is going to keep coming. Now it is simply a matter of making sure that we take action to make sure those experiences aren't permanent.