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Originally published Saturday, November 8, 2014 at 4:03 PM

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Guest: Why climate advocates fail to attract conservative support — and what they can do about it

Environmentalists must advance deeply held conservative values hand-in-hand with climate protection, writes guest columnist


Special to Tribune News Service

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Reading the political tea leaves, environmental groups ramped up multimillion dollar campaigns before the elections to support environmentally friendly Republicans. Yet, as the election results show, the effort was met with questionable success.

Green groups’ GOP outreach often focuses on a Teddy Roosevelt-esque conservation ethic, or an appeal to support candidates for growing green jobs in solar and wind. At best these attempts help some moderate Republicans win elections, but they will not shift the conservative base to support environmental issues. Why? These appeals do not speak to the core values of grass-roots conservatives, a demographic that overlaps with hard skeptics of climate change.

“Hard skeptics” align with “dismissives” in Yale scientist Anthony Leiserowitz’s groundbreaking “Six Americas” research. In contrast to “soft skeptics,” he writes, hard skeptics tend to be knowledgeable about the climate system: Many can accurately explain the drivers of warming, the scientific consensus, and nuanced concepts like weather versus climate. Further education by figures like Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and professor at Texas Tech University, does little to earn their support.

Hard skeptics are fundamentally motivated by deeply held values of individual liberty, innovation, the power of markets and constitutionally limited government, Leiserowitz writes. And they deny climate change because they believe the solutions jeopardize those values.

In short, he says, they are skeptical because they detest the solutions, which expand the scope and power of a government they deeply distrust. A noteworthy cohort of this group passionately rallies against National Security Agency spying, foreign intervention and corporate welfare, which they call crony capitalism, as issues that expand the power of a corruptible state.

In this mindset, any issue that calls for the expansion of state powers, even if seemingly benign, is suspect: green jobs abetted by government subsidies, carbon markets predicated on government directives, and Environmental Protection Agency regulations that carry increasing powers to intervene.

While for environmentalists this may seem paranoid or preposterous — you can’t deny a problem because you don’t like the solutions — it is an aspect of human nature to challenge those things that contradict your worldview, fostering a slippery slope to denial.

And while it is true that political operatives and big corporate interests have manipulated these sentiments for decades, they did not create them; this libertarian perspective has shaped America since Thomas Jefferson, and will continue to do so. It has deep roots and cannot be ignored.

Therefore, to draw in conservative support — a necessity given the GOP’s recent win — environmentalists must advance conservative values hand-in-hand with climate protection. They must not only learn to speak conservatives’ language but also genuinely incorporate their core values. This is especially difficult as today’s environmental community is closely aligned with progressive thought, such that it does not have an intuitive sense of those values, making its GOP outreach particularly imprecise.

Environmentalists should not jettison progressive values in exchange for conservative ones; both sets are complementary. They need to be integrated for solutions to be politically viable.

One such solution is a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Revenue-neutrality simply means that any tax revenue is immediately returned to citizens, by lowering income or payroll taxes, or returning a dividend check to all taxpayers. British Columbia has pioneered such a policy, successfully lowering its carbon emissions and its personal and corporate tax rates.

A carbon tax is the most systemic approach to reducing emissions: It enables the market to naturally encourage climate-friendly choices, rather than government picking winners a la Solyndra. It spurs innovation from clean-energy technologies to entirely new modes of economic activity, like the sharing economy.

Although it would be a new tax, strict revenue-neutrality means it would not increase the size and power of government — a key concern of conservatives. Revenue-neutrality protects poor and vulnerable populations from the tax’s regressive nature — a key concern of progressives.

At its core, it empowers individuals and not government — by reducing taxes on people’s prosperity, and taxing carbon pollution instead. These are ideas both the right and left can stand behind. Already, strange bedfellows from climate activists to oil companies and free-market leaders are aligning behind a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

The crux is that the climate community must genuinely embrace revenue-neutrality if it seeks to enlist conservative support. While a carbon tax can be appealing to conservatives, they are suspicious that progressives will renege on revenue-neutrality. If Republicans get even a whiff that the environmental community is not genuine on this point, they would abandon ship.

Only by folding in climate protection into a narrative that advances deep conservative values can green groups build a bridge between left and right, and enable solutions to emerge in today’s polarized politics.

Brendon Steele is a senior stakeholder engagement manager at Future 500.



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