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Should the Climate Movement Turn Down the Radicalism?

Neil Stenhouse's picture
, GMU Center for Climate Change Communication

Neil is a PhD candidate and research assistant for the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. His work focuses on understanding how communication affects political...

  • Member since 2018
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  • Oct 14, 2014
Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 13, 2014

Neil, it seems these considerations always arise in times of vigorous public debate: how to frame the message?

Though framing may be superficially important, far more so is to come from a position of solid understanding  – not one born of political or religious belief – and to be patient (the message may not sink in right away).

Activists shouting that solar energy can power the world look foolish; activists shouting that climate change will have catastrophic consequences look determined, and will eventually see results.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Oct 13, 2014

You’ve asked a lot of questions, Neil, but let me try to answer a few.

1. Should we marginalize Naomi Klein’s anti-capitalist message? Absolutely we should. Klein’s book is one of the greatest intellectual failures we’ve seen from the left in a long time. The “we all have to be poor, or we’re all gonna die” meme is a complete loser, both politically and morally. And it’s not even true: every serious study that has looked at the problem has concluded that the cost of climate mitigation is a small fraction of the cost of doing nothing. Climate action is an economic winner, and that’s the message we need to push, not Kleinian pearl-clutching.

2. What should be done to “make space” for conservatives and moderates who want action on climate? First, we can drop the knee-jerk opposition to nuclear power. The arguments against it are intellectually weak and increasingly irrelevant as CO2 emissions increase. Second, we can give conservatives a place at the table. There are plenty of conservatives, including conservative economists, who support the idea of a carbon tax. Why don’t we see them on the Sunday talk shows? Why doesn’t TEC invite a post about that topic from, say, George W. Schultz or Gregory Mankiw?

I also disagree that climate is an inherently partisan issue. Physics does not play politics. Eventually the right will catch on. And the changes are already starting: five years ago, they were all in the “it’s not happening” mode. Today they’ve moved on to the Sgt. Schultz “I know nothing” mode, which is a huge step forward.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Oct 14, 2014


It is unfortunate that Klein’s book will play into the hands of those who like to claim AGW is just a front for pushing socialism, which for most people it is not.

On the other hand, we have to prevent corporations from making money at the expense of the planet. A classic example is the proposed Pebble mine in which a corporation will strip some of the last remaining prisitine salmon-supporting wilderness in order to extract the gold underneath. They get the profits, posterity inherits the loss.


Mark Heinicke's picture
Mark Heinicke on Oct 14, 2014


Thanks for this thoughtful complement to Sieren’s post.

There seem to be two significant things missing in this discussion about political alignments vis-a-vis climate action.  These points have not so much to do with the definitions of liberal vs conservative, but with might work in shifting the climate debate.

First: The principle of individual freedom is deeply embedded in American culture.  It’s evident in the national anthem played at every major sporting event: “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  It’s in the poignant My Country ‘Tis of Thee: “from every mountainside let freedom ring.”  The hard political right believe that any infringement of individual rights, aside from policing of blatant criminality and spending on national defense, is un-American.  That includes almost all taxation.   

This is the core belief that energizes the conservative base and make otherwise reasonable (if unprincipled) politicians like Mitch McConnell pander to them.  It is the chord that Big Money plucks, and in its absence much of the big money would go to waste.   There are conservative candidates in gerrymandered districts who get outspent by moderate Democrats and still win. Money is not decisive when you’re up against deeply-ingrained traditions. That’s why we have a Republican majority in the House that leans far to the right of the American center. 

Since dealing effectively with anthropogenic climate change requires a carbon tax and/or regulation, denial of AGW has become an inseparable part of the hard right credo, and a conviction which Republican politicians question at their peril.

Note that as a liberal, I am hardly immune to the visceral appeal of freedom. Freedom is closely bound to human dignity. Freedom was the basis of the Civil Rights movement. Freedom made success possible in the opposition to the Vietnam war. 

Secondly:  as with politics generally, so in the climate debate, the key to persuasion is: one person at a time.  When I have done political canvassing, this point is stressed repeatedly: one-on-one contact has the best chance of persuasion–if not to convert the other side this time around, then at least to represent our side in a way that might influence the *next* election. This approach was one of the critical keys to the Democratic “ground game” in 2012. 

Since I’m not acquainted with many conservatives (I shun politics with those with whom I *am* acquainted), I have turned my efforts of persuasion on climate to my liberal friends and acquaintances who equate clean electric energy solely with renewables, and see promotion of nuclear as bowing to corporate masters.  (In general they don’t realize that many corporate fossil-fuel masters are as opposed to nuclear as Helen Caldicott, although for different reasons.)

If you’re face to face with someone who knows you and is unlikely to mistrust your motives, you have a good chance of being heard.  In one-on-ones, I may not get immediate agreement, but I usually at least get sober attention–especially because they know I am deeply concerned with AGW.  There’s the seed that may lead to future fruit. I have managed to convince some of them that they’d better educate themselves before condemning nuclear out of hand. I have managed to persuade one good friend in particular (a leader in the local Keystone XL effort) that renewables are insufficient to deal with more than a smallish fraction of the problem, and that nuclear must have a major role.  Why?  Not just because he’s intelligent, well-meaning, and open-minded, but because he knows me and trusts my innate character and concerns.

If the price I pay is having to make only the mildest of objections to the Naomi Klein crusade, I’m willing to compromise.  At this point, opposition to CO2 pollution trumps most political movements. 

Those with better interpersonal skills than I might have similar success with conservatives whom they know. If I had the gift, I might broach the subject with my conservative neighbor rather than avoid it for fear of alienation. Public demonstrations and clean energy propaganda turn most conservatives off, but personal contact can get a hearing if not prompt accord.  “Framing the message” is important, but just as important is getting attention paid to the message to begin with. 

With that in mind, I believe a pro-nuclear grass-roots organization might snowball into a force to be reckoned with.  But it has to be achieved mostly one person at a time. Family members.  Friends and associates of all political stripes.  That might be a quaint notion in the age of Facebook and Twitter, but quaint notions such as the ultimate triumph of reason hold some grains of truth.  

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 14, 2014

Keith, your views strike a chord with this ex-Republican whose party left him a decade and a half ago, and finds his views an often-awkward fit in today’s Democratic Party.

The Naomi Klein, Occupy Wall St. worldview, which largely embraces antinuclearism, is indeed a loser. Solely for your contribution of the phrase “Kleinian pearl-clutching”, I will gladly support a Pickering/Schultz (George W., not Sgt.) ticket in 2016 should you decide to run for President.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Oct 14, 2014

I wouldn’t say we always have to prevent corporations from making money at the expense of the planet. Pretty much everything physical in civilization involves resource extraction, and pretty much every resource extraction could be considered “at the expense of the planet” by someone.

But what we can do, and should do, is have a pigovian taxation scheme in place that allows society (via governmental action) to restore nature to a state that corporations are unwilling to, without that tax incentive in place. That would allow those external costs to be fairly captured and internallized, which would in turn allow markets to fairly value the cost of resource extraction on the environment.

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Oct 14, 2014

Pause to look at this argument from the other side of the table: Should conservatives reach out to climate activists to get them to see the error of their ways?

Here is an example of what that argument might look like:


And this is a good indicator of how Stenhouse’s argument sounds to those he aspires to ‘engage’:


Where there is such an engagement, as in this example, this is where it may lead:

Finally, there is chronic confusion in forums such as this one, hinging on the word “we.” Those who commonly weild it presume, erroneously, that their views are popular, even universal — as opposed to those of a maleficent or benighted minority of “they.” To the extent that “we” is used to refer to members of TEC, it masks the actual diversity of viewpoints present in the group. When “we” is brandished to suggest that the speaker’s views and interests are the same as those of the majority of the US electorate, or even the entire world population, it denies the realities of political plurality and polarization.

Neil Stenhouse's picture
Neil Stenhouse on Oct 14, 2014

I completely agree that one-on-one conversations with people you know are one of the best ways to try and persuade people in an open, honest way. In a sense it happens “one person at a time” as you say, but on the other hand the Obama 2012 campaign (which you also mention) and other campaigns have shown how effective it can be when lots of people have these kinds of conversations at the same time. Hahrie Han has a couple of great books on how conversations and real relationships can make organizations powerful too.

I think it’s wise to try one-on-one engagement in addition to mass media, etc. Might as well look for effectiveness wherever you can find it.

Neil Stenhouse's picture
Neil Stenhouse on Oct 14, 2014

R Street sound great – Eli Lehrer has said several good things in the past. I will check your org out as well – interested to know more, especially after finding out how big the wind industry is out there.

Mr Inglis is certainly one of my favorite heretics and I support his stance of principled heresy!

I’m not sure about some of CCL’s strategies as well. But I think it’s important to acknowledge one thing they have that many groups haven’t got: they exist, they are having some success, and they are attracting a substantial number of people into serious climate action who wouldn’t otherwise be doing it.

Neil Stenhouse's picture
Neil Stenhouse on Oct 14, 2014

I think it is a great question why we don’t see conservative figures on Sunday talk shows. And I think the answer is that there’s a world of difference between those who “support” a carbon tax in principle, and those who are prepared to do anything substantial to get one enacted. Politicians and fossil fuel companies alike often say they “support” a carbon tax in principle precisely because they don’t expect one to happen in practice in the forseeable future.

Roger Brown's picture
Roger Brown on Oct 15, 2014

The idea that limits to growth are real and must eventually be acknowledged and dealt with in order for human civilization to achieve reasonable long term stability is not ‘left wing’ thinking. It’s just thinking.

If you understand how capitalism works then you will realize that the issue is not whether doing something about climate change is cheaper than doing nothing. Instead, the issue is whether doing something effective about climate change is cheap enough to allow the debt bubble which has been growing ever since we emerged from the great depression to keep on expanding for x more decades into the future, where x is a large enough number that the current generation can feel comfortably irresponsible about the effects of its eventual collapse.

If one judges that the most probable answer the above question is ‘no’ , then the need for deep structural change in our economic system is clear, independent of left or right wing political bias

Matthew Shapiro's picture
Matthew Shapiro on Oct 18, 2014

What children we are, worrying about image and affiliation in the face of a collective crisis. How liberals see conservatives and how conservatives see liberals is a secondary problem. The very persistence of these foolish, misleading, self-fulfilling labels of polarization, if not addressed, makes our response to climate change immaterial. If we fail to address the cultural and political paralysis created by ideological objectification, we will never be in a position to address this or any other crisis effectively.

Neil Stenhouse's picture
Thank Neil for the Post!
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