Depoliticizing Climate Change to Find a Solution


Given the number of devastating hurricanes that have impacted America in the past couple of years, it is quite striking that so many Americans still do not believe in climate change. According to a Quartz article entitled “You Need to Get Inside the Mind of a Climate Change Denier if You Want to Change it,” 97% of scientific literature agrees that climate change exists and is caused by humans. Despite this, a study conducted by sociologists Aaron M. McCright and Riley Dunlap found that 32% of adults in America “deny that there is a scientific consensus on climate change.” These results are shocking because they show that even well-tested evidence does not sway the opinions of climate change skeptics. How, then, can we even begin to understand the thinking of these skeptics in order to work with them towards a permanent solution for the natural disasters crippling our society?

In his essay “The Moral Instinct,” Steven Pinker explores several issues surrounding the human conscience and its innate distinction between good and bad. Pinker categorizes moral instincts into five main “spheres”: harm, fairness, community, authority, and purity. He argues that we each rank these spheres differently, and our individual ranking explains our judgement of the morality of a given circumstance. To illustrate one’s loyalty towards the community sphere, Pinker contrasts two acts: “say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk radio show in your nation” and “say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk radio show in a foreign nation.” Pinker argues that the second act is perceived as more immoral than the first because it breaches the nation-community bond.

Pinker argues that while both sides of a divisive issue believe that they are morally correct within one of these five spheres, one side may rank the spheres differently than their opponents. He insightfully states that “at the very least, the science tells us that even when our adversaries’ agenda is most baffling, they may not be amoral psychopaths but in the throes of a moral mind-set that appears to them to be every bit as mandatory and universal as ours does to us.” Pinker brings up this eye-opening new perspective to suggest that our internal moral systems may have more in common with those we disagree with than we may believe.

Pinker’s proposal sheds new light on the topic of climate change. Climate change has become an increasingly partisan issue over the past few decades; a 2016 study by Pew Research concluded that only 15% of conservative Republicans agreed with the statement ‘“the Earth is warming mostly due to human activity,” while 79% of liberal Democrats agreed. From a liberal perspective, it can oftentimes be frustrating to understand how the majority of conservatives can disavow scientific facts. However, Pinker’s argument teaches us that both Republicans and Democrats need to recognize that the opposing side’s argument is grounded in moral righteousness, though they may justify their morality through different spheres. In trying to understand how the other side justifies their argument as morally correct, we take the first step towards reconciliation of the two parties on the topic of climate change.

The sense of loyalty that climate change deniers feel towards the Republican party reminds us of  Pinker’s moral sphere of community. Conservative Republicans are so faithful to their party that they may prioritize the community unity of their political party over profound harm to the environment. Indeed, a Republican who worked for Senator Marco Rubio’s campaign, Whit Ayres, admits to the politicization of climate change’s effect on climate change deniers. He states that “most Republicans still do not regard climate change as a hoax... But the entire climate change debate has now been caught up in the broader polarization of American politics.”

Pinker’s essay argues that the two sides to an issue both believe that they are acting righteously because of “different weightings” of the spheres of morality. Thus, we can deduce that liberal Democrats tend to support climate change because of their moral instincts against harm to the environment. Conversely, conservative Republicans tend to deny climate change because of their moral obligation to the Republican party. Now that we better understand why some conservatives generate statements like “climate change is a hoax,” we can examine some of the proposed solutions to the issue.

One potential approach is to reframe climate change around topics that interest both parties, such as job creation and economic development, in an effort to depoliticize it. In fact, this method has already proven to be effective in the small rural town of Sweetwater, Texas, which is known for having the greatest amount of wind turbines in the world––nearly 1,400. The caveat is that the residents of Sweetwater, Texas don’t believe that they’re implementing the wind turbines for climate change. According to research from Yale University, “less than half of Nolan County’s population believes that global warming is manmade.” Surprisingly, Sweetwater is not alone in this “disconnection between action and intent”; a survey conducted on 200 local governments of 10 predominantly Republican states found that more than half were running initiatives to reduce global warming, even though the residents didn’t necessarily believe in global warming themselves.

Instead of using the term “climate change,” which can often generate backlash because of its relation to partisan politics, climate change issues can be reframed as “economic development, sustainability, resource management, or public health initiatives.”  Reframing climate change into these terms focuses on the impact of climate change solutions on human society rather than on the environment, as a focus on helping the environment can evolve into a politically contentious issue. This strategy is now used by many environmental advocacy groups, including the Citizen’s Climate Lobby (CCL), a “nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group that pushes for bipartisan climate solutions.” The director of the group, Daniel Richter, notes that the group “doesn’t immediately focus on science when talking with skeptical leaders,” since “science” is a politically charged topic. Instead, volunteers present elected officials with policies focused on “boosting the economy and creating jobs.” Richter believes that his group’s strategy has been effective, citing the establishment of the Climate Solutions Caucus,  “a bipartisan House of Representatives group formed in 2016 to address the impact of climate change,” as evidence.

As evidenced by the CCL and Sweetwater, Texas, depoliticizing climate change through reframing is the most effective way to reach a bipartisan solution. However, the limits to this strategy should be recognized because not every proposed solution to climate change can be reframed to appeal to conservatives. For example, it would be difficult to convince people working in the coal industries to regulate this industry to protect the environment because, irrespective of framing, they would consequently lose their jobs. But even so, for a deeply partisan problem like climate change, reframing has proven to be a successful method that should be used to address the issue before it becomes too late.

Pallavi Sreedhar