How Conservatives Explain Climate to Conservatives

April 16, 2018

MIT Technology Review:

erry Taylor believes he can change the minds of conservative climate skeptics. After all, he helped plant the doubts for many in the first place.

Taylor spent years as a professional climate denier at the Cato Institute, arguing against climate science, regulations, and treaties in op-eds, speeches, and media appearances. But his perspective slowly began to change around the turn of the century, driven by the arguments of several economists and legal scholars laying out the long-tail risks of global warming.

Now he’s president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian-leaning Washington, DC, think tank he founded in 2014. He and his colleagues there are trying to build support for the passage of an aggressive federal carbon tax, through discussions with Washington insiders, with a particular focus on Republican legislators and their staff.

Lesson 1: Pick the right targets

Political scientists consistently find that mass opinion doesn’t drive the policy debate so much as the other way around. Partisan divides emerge first among “elites,” including influential advocacy groups, high-profile commentators, and politicians, says Megan Mullin, an associate professor of environmental politics at Duke University.

They, in turn, set the terms of debate in the public mind, spreading the parties’ views through tested and refined sound bites in media appearances, editorials, social media, and other forums.

For the most part, people first align themselves with groups, often political parties, that appeal to them on the basis of their own experiences, demographics, and social networks. They then entrust the recognized leaders of their self-selected tribe to sort out the details of dense policy and science for them, while vigorously rejecting arguments that seem to oppose their ideologies—in part because such arguments also effectively attack their identity.

In fact, political predisposition is by far the most influential factor in determining a person’s “perceptions and attitudes about climate change,” noted Mullin and Patrick Egan, an associate professor of politics at New York University, in a 2017 analysis in the Annual Review of Political Science.

In many ways, the climate-change debate is ensnared in the culture wars that have consumed US politics over the last three decades.

“Positions on climate change have become symbols of whose side you are on in a cultural conflict divorced from science,” Dan Kahan, a Yale professor of law and psychology who has closely studied this issue, has said.

Lesson 2: Depoliticize the issue

So how do you even begin to convince the conservatives who could actually drive debates and change policies?

When Taylor sits down across from them, his standard opening goes: “I understand why you’re skeptical. I probably wrote most of the talking points you’ve read. But I changed my mind, and let me explain why I did.”

No one is receptive to being called dumb or a lackey of corporate interests, Taylor says. (note to self – Peter) Instead, he and his staff attempt to craft fact-based arguments designed to appeal specifically to their political interests, and present policies they can rationalize within their ideologies.

Notably, the Niskanen Center isn’t pushing the environmental regulations that conservatives despise. They’re advocating a revenue-neutral carbon tax, a market-based tool. Carbon pollution costs real people real money. It’s just that the polluters aren’t necessarily the ones bearing those costs. In a market that respects the property rights libertarians champion, that “externality” needs to be priced in, Taylor says.

It’s a carbon tax that conservatives like Shultz, fellow former secretary of state James Baker, and past Treasury secretary Hank Paulson have also rallied around as at least a palatable policy for addressing climate change. Republicans generally oppose new taxes, of course. But in this case, they strongly prefer a market mechanism that nudges business behavior to environmental rules that strictly dictate corporate actions.

Lesson 3: Pick the right policies

Former congressman Bob Inglis, a South Carolina Republican, also argues that the GOP will come around to a carbon tax, particularly if parties can reach a grand bargain that includes the rollback of regulatory efforts like the Clean Power Plan.

“We think it takes having conservatives hear solutions in the language of conservatism,” says Inglis, who served two stints in Congress and had a change of heart on the subject in between.

He knows as well as anyone the price that Republicans can pay for coming out too strongly on climate change. Inglis lost his House seat in the 2010 Republican primary to a Tea Party–backed challenger, at least in part because of his advocacy for a carbon tax.

Now he oversees RepublicEn, an initiative to encourage GOP leaders across the nation to embrace the cause. He believes it’s becoming safer for Republicans to step out in front of this issue, in part because of the growing backlash against President Donald Trump.

That said, by all accounts it’s still going to take years to build the necessary support to actually pass a carbon tax.

“Jesus Christ himself could not deliver that with this Congress,” Taylor says.

There’s more at the link.


2 Responses to “How Conservatives Explain Climate to Conservatives”

  1. Keith McClary Says:

    Lesson 4: Never say “Tax”.
    Call it the “American Patriot Energy Security Incentives Program” or somesuch.

  2. greenman3610 Says:

    key words:
    Patriot Anti Terror competitive freedom heritage keep our white women pure

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