America the Polarized: How to Find Common Ground on Climate Change
Climate change affects us all – yet most Americans rarely bring it up. Part of the reason for this is that they don’t hear it being talked about, either by their friends and family or by the media. They won’t hear about it much in political debates, either, unless the candidates raise the topic themselves. Even people who are deeply concerned about climate change can be led to believe that others wouldn’t care, or worry that the subject is too touchy for polite conversation.
There’s no doubt that climate change is a politically charged and polarizing issue. The latest Pew survey on climate attitudes found sharp and wide ideological splits between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, not just about whether climate change is a real and serious threat, but also about the credibility of climate scientists and the efficacy of climate policies.
There are certainly exceptions – but when major newspapers, TV news stations, and debate moderators are silent on climate change, even as impacts and evidence grow increasingly hard to ignore, we have a problem. In order to make climate change a voting priority this November and build the support we need for climate solutions in the months to come, we must stop tiptoeing around the subject, and make it a topic just as trending as the latest celebrity divorce or Twitter meme.
Here’s how we can bring up climate change without people covering their ears.
Don’t talk about climate change – talk about clean energy
The term “climate change” itself is polarizing and too closely linked to political wrangling – we recommend saying “damage to the climate” instead. But even there, some people may disagree about the causes or extent of this damage. Rather than debate this point, a better option is to focus on solutions, namely clean energy – something voters in both parties overwhelmingly favor.
No matter what a person’s political affiliation is or what their opinions are about climate change, we can all agree that less pollution in our air and water is a good thing. Switching from dirty fuels to clean wind and solar power will create a healthier world for everyone. It will also create jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, which both parties see as a positive.
And while climate change can seem like an insurmountable problem and make people feel guilty and hopeless, clean energy is a tangible solution that anyone can take action on and reap the benefits of. Focusing on it reminds us of America’s legacy as a nation of innovators and problem solvers, inspiring patriotism rather than partisanship.
Emphasize the moral dimension of climate change
Climate change is in many ways a justice issue, because it disproportionally impacts the vulnerable – low income communities, people of color, the elderly, children, and people in undeveloped nations who did little to contribute to the problem but are already suffering from it. According to a new study from the National Hispanic Medical Association, American Latinos are 51 percent more likely than white Americans to live in an area with unhealthy levels of oil- and gas-related air pollution – and are showing correspondingly high levels of asthma and elevated cancer risks as a result.
Most people feel it’s our human duty to protect the poor and disadvantaged, and to alleviate sickness and hunger. This means it is our moral obligation to address climate change, a point Pope Francis made in his climate encyclical in the summer of 2015. His words have had a measurable effect on American climate views, particularly among Catholics. But the morality message need not be limited to people of faith – it can motivate anyone who believes in justice, fairness, and compassion.
Show how seemingly unrelated impacts are linked
Because climate change is both global and gradual, it’s easy for people to think it doesn’t directly affect them – or if it does, it won’t happen for many years. Yet those same people may mention that their allergies seem to be getting worse, or complain about the heat wave that’s keeping them indoors and making their power bill go through the roof. Helping them realize that they are, in fact, being affected by climate change here and now can help make the issue personal and urgent.
Health impacts can be particularly relevant, because health is such a universal concern. Climate change – and the rising temperatures and air pollution associated with it – is exacerbating asthma, allergies, and respiratory illness, expanding the range of insects that carry diseases like West Nile virus, and putting people at higher risk of heat stroke and cardiovascular failure.
For those of us who aren’t health professionals but want to help make these connections clear, many prominent health leaders and organizations have put out materials explaining both the threats of climate change and how climate solutions can benefit public health. The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment, released by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, is one of the most recent and comprehensive.
Connect the issue to common values like family
Of all the things that unify us as humans, one of the most profound may be the love we feel for our families. Few things are more powerful than the bond between parent and child – so tying climate action to the common desire to protect our children and leave a better world for future generations can be highly effective.
We share other common values as well, but our political polarization may make it hard to realize that. The marriage equality movement reached its watershed moment only after it stopped framing marriage as “right” for a special interest group, and instead showed that gay couples share the same values as straight couples: love and commitment. The message changed from “us vs. them” to “we.”
In the same way, the majority of Americans believe that everyone should have access to clean air and water, that compassion is one of the most important human virtues, and that we have the power to make the world a better place. We believe in American ingenuity and freedom of choice. The key is to show how climate action and the benefits of solutions are connected to those common values.
When we think about it that way, our nation isn’t so divided after all.