Why the Partisan Divide on Climate Change Is Shrinking (And How to Make It Even Smaller)

blog-partisan divide closing-5.4.16Over the last few months, concern and awareness about climate change have been steadily increasing. Whatever your politics, it’s difficult to stay skeptical when monthly and yearly temperatures keep shattering records.
 
This week, a new study was released showing that climate acceptance among Republican voters has nearly doubled over the past few years. The poll, conducted by the Climate Change Communication programs at Yale and George Mason University, found that 47 percent of conservative Republicans now agree that the climate is changing – the biggest jump among all voting groups.
 
It’s hard to say exactly what caused this change in attitude. The unseasonably warm winter we just had probably contributed, along with record flooding in several parts of the country. Some conservatives may have been swayed by Pope Francis’ call for all mankind to care for the poor and future generations by fighting climate change. Others may have seen the recent Paris Agreement – which a majority of Republicans supported – as a sign that the world is serious about the issue, and that a new, global clean energy strategy is becoming an established fact.
 
Whatever the reason (or reasons), this shift is significant, and it may well affect the upcoming elections.
 
Climate Change as an Election Issue
The Yale/GMU study found that registered voters are three times more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who strongly supports climate action, and four times more likely to vote against a candidate who opposes taking action.
 
While this has so far not greatly influenced the climate platforms of the major GOP presidential candidates, voter opinions are affecting Republican senate races. Last week, GOP Senator Lindsey Graham filed an amendment to the 2017 energy spending bill, stating that “human activity contributes to climate change,” and that Congress has a responsibility to address it. The amendment was co-sponsored by four Republican senators, three of whom are in tight races against opponents with strong records on climate.
 
This is not to say that partisanship doesn’t still play a role in climate opinions. The study reports that only half of moderate and liberal Republicans (and just 26 percent of conservatives) think climate change is mostly human-caused. And while moderate Republicans are more likely than not to favor a presidential candidate who wants to fight climate change, this issue is not a high priority. In fact, when asked to rank 23 potential election issues, Independents and Republicans placed climate change near the bottom of the list.
 
Is it possible to engage these groups on the realities of climate change and the need for urgent action? Yes – but it needs to be done thoughtfully.
 
How to Engage In Non-Partisan Ways
According to another new study from Duke University, climate messages that conflict with a person’s political identity may actually increase polarization and create more resistance to taking action.
 
While our own research advocates a number of general best practices, such as staying positive and leading with solutions, there is no one “perfect” way to frame your climate message. It’s always crucial to consider your audience, and understand their values and identities. The same climate solution may have a different appeal to conservatives and liberals, depending on whether it’s framed as an independence/self-sufficiency issue or a fairness/justice issue. It’s also key to find areas of common ground where everyone can agree, regardless of political affiliation, such as the desire to protect the health of our children and loved ones.
 
Choosing the right person to deliver the message is also hugely important. In the Duke study, people were much less receptive to climate messages that were attributed to a Congress member from the opposing party. The greater the person’s interest in politics, the keener their aversion to the message. Conversely, people are far more receptive to messages that come from a respected leader within their own tribe (whether that tribe is a political party, a religious group, an ethnic group, or another group the person identifies with strongly).
 
That’s why it’s a big deal that Senator Graham’s amendment acknowledges the role of human activity in climate change (though the amendment doesn’t say how large a role). It’s a big deal that Kevin Faulconer, the Republican mayor of San Diego, has embraced a plan to power the city with 100% clean, renewable energy by 2035. It’s a big deal that a bipartisan coalition of Florida mayors and county leaders have formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact to deal with climate impacts. By speaking out on the need for action and publicly supporting solutions, these leaders are showing other members of their party that climate change isn’t just a liberal issue.
 
You can help spread the message to your own tribe by joining our leadership initiatives for the health, faith, and communities sectors: Climate for Health, Blessed Tomorrow, and Path to Positive Communities.

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