Three Approaches to Engaging U.S. Climate Deniers

How to engage U.S. conservatives on climate change - relate it to their own values and beliefs How do we reach the large minority of Americans that continue to resist the facts about climate change? One way to encourage behavior change may be to work within the belief system of climate deniers. We may even need to employ a communications strategy that ignores climate change altogether.

There are a significant number of Americans who are not acting to address climate change and many of these people are not swayed by science.  The most recent polls show that only 55 percent of Americans are worried about climate change. That means that there are 45 percent of Americans who do not believe that climate change is a global priority.

The lion’s share of resistance to climate change comes from conservatives and libertarians. Rather than working to change people’s ideological frame of reference, it may be more expedient to encourage behavioral change by employing the constructs of people’s preexisting world view. This may be the easiest way to get deniers to change their behavior, even if it does not change their beliefs.

Property Rights

Conservative and libertarian thought are defined by a few basic principles. One of the central tenants of conservative thought concerns property rights. Property rights are a central tenet of conservative thought and may be an effective approach to changing behavior. Property rights may be the key to reaching conservatives and libertarians.

For conservatives and libertarians, property rights constitute the basis of individual liberty and as such they are the primary bulwark against government power.  As conservatives see it, property rights are intertwined with the second amendment and go all the way back to the framing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Sir William Blackstone (1723 – 1780) was an English jurist, judge and Tory politician of the eighteenth century. He is most noted for writing the Commentaries on the Laws of England, an authoritative and influential source of common law for colonists.

Blackstone described private property as one of three absolute rights of individuals (I Blackstone Commentaries 129). He further saw these absolute rights as being protected by the individual’s right to have and use arms for self-preservation and defense.

It is widely recognized in common law that harm done to property warrants redress. The perpetrators of property damage could be forced to assume liability and pay compensation.

This also would apply to impacts from global warming. The property impacts from climate change induced extreme weather or an anticipated sea level rise would entitle owners to compensation. Under such a system, the level of liability would be determined in proportion to the amount of emissions generated.

Revenue Neutral Carbon Tax

Conservatives and libertarians resist regulation on climate issues, but as reviewed on the Volokh Conspiracy, they are likely to be receptive to a revenue neutral carbon tax. Under such a plan, the federal government would impose a price on carbon that is fully rebated to taxpayers on a per capita basis. This tax would be more transparent and it would target energy consumption.

While conservatives oppose increasing the federal tax burden, they tend to support a shift from an income tax to a sales or consumption tax.  According to the logic of such a tax, the atmosphere is a global commons owned by us all, those who use this commons to dispose of their carbon emissions should pay a user fee to compensate those who are affected.

As compared to cap-and-trade, a revenue neutral carbon tax is simpler, more transparent, and less economically burdensome. Perhaps most importantly for Conservatives, a revenue neutral tax would not cede expansive control of the energy sector to government.

Even NASA climatologist James Hansen supports a carbon neutral tax. Rather than subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, Hansen supports a rising fee on carbon emissions to make environmentally harmful energy pay their true costs.

“We need to start reducing emissions significantly, not create new ways to increase them. We should impose a gradually rising carbon fee, collected from fossil fuel companies, then distribute 100 percent of the collections to all Americans on a per-capita basis every month. The government would not get a penny. This market-based approach would stimulate innovation, jobs and economic growth, avoid enlarging government or having it pick winners or losers. Most Americans, except the heaviest energy users, would get more back than they paid in increased prices. Not only that, the reduction in oil use resulting from the carbon price would be nearly six times as great as the oil supply from the proposed pipeline from Canada, rendering the pipeline superfluous, according to economic models driven by a slowly rising carbon price.”

Ignoring Climate Change

Paradoxically, it may be more productive to avoid challenging the confused beliefs of climate deniers. This is the view of director Peter Blyck, the maker of the documentary film ‘Carbon Nation.’ In a recent NPR interview, Blyck expressed his view that the best way to get people to make more environmentally friendly energy choices is to avoid the subject of climate change altogether. Blyck says his “common sense” approach to curbing CO2 emissions is not about changing people’s views on climate change.

Rather than debate the science of climate change, Byck explores common ground on energy issues. For example, he claims that Americans agree on issues like solar and wind energy. According to Byck, 70 percent of Americans claim to love solar energy and 90 percent of Americans like wind energy. Most US citizens also claimed to like geothermal and energy efficiency.

“We aren’t a polarized country, especially when it comes to energy” Byck said. “It’s – I just see too much common ground. I see too much agreement. I just think people aren’t listening. I don’t think people in leadership are listening to the people, and I think a lot of people are being told that they’re polarized, and we are polarized, and they’re acting as if, and that’s the problem. We’re being told we’re polarized so much we don’t actually know that we’re in agreement.”

According to Byck, the fossil fuel industry has succeeded in getting us to debate climate change and this is taking the place of actually doing something about it.  As long as we are talking about it, we won’t do anything about it.

“I mean, just the fact that we’re debating climate change at all is – actually, it’s a victory for the folks in the ’80s and ’90s from the fossil fuel industry who just wanted us to debate it. That was the game plan. It’s the same exact game plan as the tobacco industry…They won. They did a great job. They’re the best storytellers since Shakespeare. They’re brilliant.”

Those who are looking to move beyond the political impasse in Washington need to consider these three approaches. New strategies are essential to build support for meaningful change. If we are to grow support for efforts to combat climate change, we need to find new ways to reach the sizable minority of Americans who resist the facts about climate change.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: David Paul Ohmer, courtesy flickr

Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor, and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics, and eco-economics.

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  1. Property Rights

    “The perpetrators of property damage could be forced to assume liability and pay compensation.” By whom? Since the lion’s share of CO2 emissions will be from the most successful countries (including China and India by the time any effects might be provable), I doubt anyone will want to pay the bill. Indeed, they would first want to account for any benefit the victim had received for the damaging emissions. While wealthy countries have benefited most from the progress made after the Industrial Revolution, what country hasn’t seen huge improvements in recent years? Damage done from minute changes in global temperature are very difficult to prove and so far, the claims made by climate scientists that they can detect signals have been largely debunked by other (AGW supporting) scientists. Of course if you personally feel guilty, you can compensate all you like, from your own pocket.

    Revenue Neutral Carbon Tax

    Tax is tax. Make it big enough to be effective and people soon notice that it’s there. It might decrease emissions slightly but it won’t come near to solving your perceived problem.

    Ignoring Climate Change

    Firstly, we are bringing the argument to you. Secondly, you guys really have no idea what cutting CO2 involves do you? You can’t tippy toe into a two ton per capita carbon footprint. People might like the idea of wind and solar, right up until they are both paying for it and realising how useless it is. There is cast iron proof from those countries that have indulged in renewables that they don’t work well enough to replace a significant portion of fossil fuel production. A curious person doesn’t have to go far to find out that evidence. Even if AGW might be real the current crop of solutions are pure fantasy.

    Do you really think deniers are that dumb?

    Ask yourself the following –

    If the US is found guilty of CO2 crimes will you (and I mean you) be liable to pay compensation because you are a) emitting more than 2 tons of CO2 per year b) are enjoying the benefits of a society built on and sustained by significant CO2 emissions c) the poorer people of your country can’t afford their share of the bill d) you have emitted more than 2 tons of CO2 per year prior to finding out about AGW e) have more than 2 children f) don’t support some CO2 reduction options eg nuclear or GM crops. The answer might be all of the above. Try and work out how much you, personally, would be paying before you casually claim that deniers should have to pay.

    • TinyC02 – Appreciate your well thought out comments. So what is the solution that you propose?

      The time is gone that we can afford the luxury of “tearing down” the proposals of others without putting forth solutions.

      I would be interested in what you would propose?

    • “.. you guys really have no idea what cutting CO2 involves do you?”

      Yeah, let’s make it sound like cutting CO2 us an impossible dream. Because that might make some waverers give up trying.

      In reality, cutting CO2 is something every one of us can do. Here are just a very few ways it can be done:

      * Drive less.
      * Drive more slowly.
      * Use Skype instead of flying for 3 hours each way for a 1 hour meeting.
      * Install solar panels to generate your electricity.
      * Install thermal panels to heat your water.
      * Leave the thermostat where it is and put on a sweater instead.
      * Tell your politicians to support renewable sources of energy instead of subsidising fossil fuels.
      * Get you home insulated.
      * Turn off lights and appliances on standby.
      * Walk more – lose weight while you save cash.
      * Buy local produce instead of shipping in tomatoes from overseas.
      * Take one less vacation or have that vacation closer to home.
      * Tell your power company to shove shale gas.
      * Get yourself educated as to what climate change really means for this planet.
      * Once you know how awful the future would be under “business as usual” warn you friends and ask them to do some/all of the above.
      * Etc, etc.

      See…not that hard really.

    • No one wants to foot the bill, particularly not climate deniers. As a consequence we need to develop approaches that relate climate change to ideologies that deniers can relate to (and yes I think deniers are stupid or else they would not be deniers in the first place). Your statement that “Damage done from minute changes in global temperature are very difficult to prove and so far” is inaccurate. We have seen a 1 degree increase in temperature in the last hundred years and 2 degrees Celsius is the upper limit agreed to by the international community in 2009. Even small temperature variations can have radical consequences.

      While you may be uninterested in science, others are no doubt interest in the facts: In 2009, 18 scientific groups — including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Meteorological Society — issued a joint statement indicating that human activities are the “primary driver” of climate change. The National Academy of Sciences (the gold standard for objective scientific assessment) have also clearly supported the body of evidence on anthropogenic global warming.

      “Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small. Such conclusions and theories are then regarded as settled facts. This is the case for the conclusions that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is due to human activities.”

      Comprehensive Review of Climate Change Science

      The Stark Partisan Divide on Global Warming

  2. I have a better idea, and a way to use the markets to effect the change we want.

    1. Intentional property insurance companies are starting to see climate change effects in their loss data.
    2. These losses are unevenly distributed between companies, creating climate arbitrage opportunities.
    3. Enough traders are deniers to create a bias against seeing this, so a stock filter based on real effects that will strip cash out of the markets.
    4. Eventually, the “invisible hand” will respond to the leakage and change the behavior.
    5. The players can get stinking rich in the meantime, and either spend it on the problem, or invest in NASA’s new faster-than-light drive and get the Hell out of here.

    • Hi Muir – I don’t understand the market that well, but won’t individual insurance companies try to reduce their losses by refusing to insure certain kinds of risks or increase premiums of certain risks to a level that the losses are reduced or the risk is held by the individual property owner rather than the insurance company.

      Also, given that the market does not internalize externalities- won’t the costs associated with the loss of human life, species extinction and habitat destruction go un-valued?

      • Insurance companies here in Europe are already ” refusing to insure certain kinds of risks ” and have started to ” increase premiums of certain risks”. So buildings in high-risk areas (e.g. areas that have suffered multiple flooding events in recent years) no longer qualify for insurance.

        That’s why denialists like TinyCO2 WILL lose in the end – their beloved institutions will be the ones to turn on them.

        Species extinction and habitat destruction are by-products of climate change just as much as the storms, floods wildfires, sea level rise, ocean acidification etc. But here’s the clever thing – cure climate change and you cure them all. Save the oceans and you save the corals and the fishes. Stop drought and you reduce the likelihood of wildfires. Etc, etc

        Combating climate change is a win-win option. The only losers will be the TinyCO2’s of this world, who are happy to let some other country/countries clean up the mess that TinyCO2 and his/her chums have made and are still making. As long as it isn’t costing TinyCO2’s team, the rest of us can (quite literally) go to hell.


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