Cultivating a conservative climate movement

Let’s begin with two simple premises:

  1. The amount of climate change the world experiences depends on the total quantity of fossil fuels that get burned. As such, there is little value in avoiding burning particular coal, oil, and gas reserves in one time period if we then burn them in another
  2. In Canada, the US, and the UK the electoral pattern for a century or more has been alternating between relatively left-wing and relatively right-wing governments

I think it follows from this that for climate change mitigation policy to succeed, it cannot only be supported by progressives or supporters of left-of-centre parties.

It’s true that the most prehistoric form of climate change denial (saying there is no problem, or it’s a problem too small to require action) is concentrated among political conservatives. It’s also true that the fossil fuel industry has outsize influence over conservative politics, parties, and politicians. To me — however — these observations are akin to the argument that since 85% of the world’s energy currently comes from fossil fuels it is imposible or unrealistic to try to replace them. In both cases, the depth of the current dependency demonstrates the need for change, rather than its impossibility.

Recently, UK Conservative MP Alicia Kearns and U.S. Republican congressperson John Curtis co-authored an article in the Times of London: The left should not dominate the conversation on climate change.

They also appeared in a recent panel hosted by the Hudson Institute:

Progressives tend to be very opposed to the argument or idea that conservatives need to be won over to climate change mitigation through fossil fuel abolition. The intersectional climate justice analysis holds that climate change is a symptom of systemic injustice and cannot be corrected through narrow solutions which do not eliminate colonialism or capitalism or patriarchy. It is a joined-together worldview that clearly motivates a lot of people, but I don’t think it’s a sound strategy for avoiding catastrophic climate change. Furthermore, I challenge the claim that only systematic change in our political or economic system can solve the problem. Progressives also tend to assert that renewable energy is cheaper and better in every way than fossil fuel, implicitly acknowledging that it could be possible to replace where our energy comes from without fundamentally changing much more about society.

I can see at least a couple of routes for moving forward with cultivating a conservative commitment to climate change mitigation.

Thinking about the span of the next couple of decades, I think conservatism in the English-speaking democracies may be posed for a huge splitting apart between comparative pragmatists who are willing to accept what science has unambiguously shown and pure ideologues whose policy preferences do not relate to what is really happening in the world. If that split can be enlarged to the point of crisis — when those on the empiricist side will no longer tolerate supporting the same candidates and parties as those on the fantasist side — those willing to consider evidence will likely have a long-term electoral advantage as those most implacably opposed to climate action die off, young people with a better understanding of climate change become politically dominant, and as the undeniable effects of climate change become even plainer.

Another plausible route to cultivating conservative support for climate change mitigation is through faith communities. The Catholic Church, United Church, Anglican Church, and others have been outspoken from the centre of their institutions about the need to control climate change. It’s true that there are some whose theology sees the Earth exclusively as a set of resources to be exploited, or who believe that a religious apocalypse will soon bring an end to the material world making long-term problems irrelevant, but I suspect there are many more in all faiths and denominations who can be won over to the view that we have a duty to care for creation and not to pass on a degraded world to our successors.

I think part of the progressive wariness about outreach to conservatives arises from how the intersectional view ties climate change into the social justice and economic redistribution agendas which animated the left long before climate change became a mainstream concern. Cooperating with conservatives on the narrow issue of replacing fossil fuels would not advance the general project of abolishing capitalism or re-ordering the global system. Some see climate change as a crisis which would be ‘wasted’ if our response only sustains planetary stability. Others convincingly point out that even without climate change as a problem the idea that resource use and waste production can increase indefinitely is fundamentally at odds with a finite planet. All that said, climate change seems to be the most pressing and serious societal problem facing humanity, and resolving it would give us more time and a more stable global environment in which to pursue other aims of justice.

I don’t believe either progressives or conservatives can or should win one another over to their entire worldview. The progressive climate change movement is an enormous success and source of hope, and I am not calling for it to be dismantled or fundamentally altered, though they ought to give more consideration to cross-ideological alliances on certain vital issues. As long as effective climate change policies are something which one side assembles and the other dismantles we cannot succeed, and so winning over conservatives to climate action is an indispensable condition of success.


40 thoughts on “Cultivating a conservative climate movement”

  1. “I know they have the climate portion in here, and I’m concerned about that,” Manchin said moments after Biden met with Senate Democrats in the Capitol on Wednesday.
    “Because if they’re eliminating fossils, and I’m finding out there’s a lot of language in places they’re eliminating fossils, which is very, very disturbing, because if you’re sticking your head in the sand, and saying that fossil (fuel) has to be eliminated in America, and they want to get rid of it, and thinking that’s going to clean up the global climate, it won’t clean it up all. If anything, it would be worse.”

    Joe Manchin says he’s ‘very, very’ disturbed about reconciliation proposals on climate change – CNNPolitics

  2. How Germany’s Greens conquered the industrial heartland

    Pro-business centrism is one of two pillars of Mr Kretschmann’s appeal today. Happy to label himself a “conservative”, he emphasises that climate protection must go hand in hand with economic growth, and readily slaps down bad ideas emanating from his own side. “People like it,” says Boris Palmer, the Green mayor of Tübingen, a town in Baden-Württemberg. “They don’t want party soldiers, they like politicians interested in their needs.” This has helped the Greens expand beyond their comfort zone, in cities such as Stuttgart and Freiburg, to former cdu voters and Mittelstand exporters, often in far-flung rural areas.

  3. High-profile Conservatives launch bid to convince party leaders that climate policy matters

    Even as their party appears to be abandoning its short-lived support for carbon pricing, a small group of high-profile Conservatives is launching an effort to get their next leader to take climate policy seriously.

    Conservatives for Clean Growth, launched on Thursday morning, bills itself as an organization of long-term “activists, advisors and members” who believe “it’s critical for the Conservative Party of Canada to have a credible plan on the environment.”

    Co-chaired by former federal minister Lisa Raitt and former Alberta provincial minister Jim Dinning, with veteran policy adviser Ken Boessenkool as its executive director, the new organization is pledging to work with any candidate running to replace Erin O’Toole as leader, if they are interested in developing “a credible climate, energy and economic plan.”

    It’s an effort that should be welcomed by anyone concerned that the Tories – by far the likeliest party to form government whenever Canadians turn from Justin Trudeau’s Liberals – might be set to turn their backs on the country’s emissions-reduction goals, and on efforts to compete economically in a decarbonizing world.

  4. America’s green energy industry takes on the fossil-fuel lobby

    Renewable energy is growing fastest in conservative states. So why don’t Republicans love it?

    The main reason is a familiar one. America’s fossil-fuel lobby is well-organised, ruthless and dug-in on the right. Once scattered across the country, it is concentrated in a handful of those same conservative states, especially Texas and Oklahoma, where no elected Republican dares cross it. Yet its influence extends further. It has one of the most powerful lobbying operations on k Street and, through the operations of Charles Koch and other hydrocarbon tycoons, a network of think-tanks and propagandists adept at blurring the lines between economics, libertarian ideology and conspiracy theory. The Koch-linked Texas Public Policy Foundation made the running in blaming wind for the state’s recent blackout. Like the pro-gun lobby, another skilful circumventer of public opinion, the fossil-fuels camp has also propagated a powerful conservative mythology. In contrast to cosseted renewables, it claims to be a preserve of wildcatting free spirits, which is half true, and unsubsidised, which is not.

    And the fossil-fuel lobby is not about to give up. By one calculation it outspent its renewables counterpart last year by 13:1. The enduring influence of mining also shows how long a well-organised lobby can outlast its economic relevance. Indeed, the sense of loss radiated by a dying industry was perhaps what made mining so attractive to the grievance-mongering Mr Trump in the first place. The economics of American energy is being transformed; the politics, not so much.

  5. The theme of Poilievre’s campaign is freedom. His rallies target government policies that he argues restrict those freedoms — everything from vaccine mandates to carbon taxes to government policy on inflation. Poilievre promises that if he becomes prime minister, he’ll put a stop to all of it.

    His supporters praise Poilievre for being an unapologetic conservative. Many like his willingness to bluntly criticize and even mock the Liberals.

    Detractors worry he’ll deepen divisions within the party and the country. Some have gone as far as to warn of the “Trumpification” of the Conservative Party if Poilievre wins.

  6. So in 2017, Backer founded the American Conservation Coalition, which next month is hosting what it bills as the first conservative climate rally.

    “We want to plant a flagpole in the sand to say, this is an issue conservatives can and should lead on,” he said. “There is absolutely zero path to a zero emissions, climate change-free future without bipartisanship — and anybody who doesn’t accept that isn’t taking this seriously.”

    The group has grown to more than 220 branches, many of which are on college campuses, with thousands of grassroots members and relationships on Capitol Hill.

  7. Here’s a radical idea: Climate activists need to engage conservatives

    When U.S. climate activists talk about diversity, they don’t mean political diversity. But to make real progress, we’ll need conservatives too.

    I consider myself to be a radical — and I now believe that the most radical thing I can do is break out of the safety zone of left/liberal environmentalism and actively engage with conservatives.

    I have spent two decades in the radical environmental movement, and I believe strongly that the crisis of climate change requires systemic changes. I am utterly convinced, from my reading of history, that these changes will only emerge from strong and outspoken political movements.

    But no movement will win unless it has strength of numbers and influence. We should not delude ourselves that a highly motivated minority — what Marxists used to call the vanguard — can ever win this. The issue of climate change is far too large to be addressed without a near total commitment across society.

  8. “Recently I led a communications workshop for one of the largest international environmental networks, one I respect and have worked with for many years. I asked them, “Do you think that the climate change movement has a problem with its diversity?” Absolutely, they replied, it’s too dominated by middle-aged men, too white, too middle class, not enough involvement from minorities or indigenous peoples, not many disabled people. But nobody mentioned the absence of conservatives, and certainly no one in the room admitted to being one.

    Diversity is a powerful frame for progressives, but its components have been entirely defined by the struggles of marginalized groups for representation. It makes us blind to our own failure to involve the majority of our fellow citizens.”

  9. There are three critical elements that combine to generate a social mandate for climate action: cross-societal concern, lack of polarisation and concern turned into action. Our mission is to help achieve these via three complementary approaches:

    * mobilising understanding of how to best engage key audiences with climate change actions and ensuring research drives significant impact.

    * motivating a diverse range of communities through supporting communicators, organisations and trusted messengers to effectively engage key audiences through informed practices.

    * promoting the importance of informed public engagement to decision-makers, and the centrality of people-based approaches in successfully tackling climate change to governments, public bodies, civil society and funders.

  10. Psychologists Are Learning How to Convince Conservatives to Take Climate Change Seriously

    Last week’s People’s Climate March drew 400,000 people onto the streets of Manhattan and a great deal of international attention to a subject of dire urgency. But some were skeptical about the event’s overall significance. “The march slogan was, ‘to change everything, we need everyone,’ which is telling, because it won’t change everything, because it didn’t include everyone,” wrote David Roberts of Grist. “Specifically, it won’t change American politics because it didn’t include conservatives.” True enough.

    So how would this translate to a real-world message? “What you need to do is put the system first,” said Feygina. “Instead of saying, ‘Let’s deal with climate change, let’s be pro-environmental, let’s protect the oceans,’ what you need to do is come in and say, ‘If we want to preserve our system, if we want to be patriotic, if we want our children to have the life that we have, then we have to take these actions that allow us to maintain those things that we care about.’” The starting point can’t be about averting catastrophe, in other words — it has to be about pride in the current system and the need to maintain it.

  11. Another challenge, though, is that many of the messages that do seem to work for liberals — at least “work” in the sense of helping to build communities, organize marches, and so on — are ones that conservatives will likely find extremely off-putting. Climate activists often stamp their feet, perplexed as to how dire talk of ecologies collapsing and cities getting flooded don’t reach conservatives even as they assist in fund-raising and in activating liberals. “Oftentimes people decide on how they’re going to build their [message] based on intuition — they say ‘Oh, this is how humans works,’” said Feygina.

    But that intuition is often flawed. If climate activists are serious about doing anything other than preaching to the choir, they’re going to have to understand that messages that feel righteous and work on liberals may not have universal appeal. To a liberal, the system isn’t working and innocent people will suffer as a result — these are blazingly obvious points. But conservatives have blazingly obvious points of their own: The system works and we need to protect it, and it’s important not to let pure things be defiled.

    Climate activists, said Feygina, are often “not able to step outside that and ask questions about how we process information, and what are the barriers at hand.” And that, she said, “completely misses the target.”

  12. Conservatives Take Action for Climate at CCL

    Drew Eyerly, CCL’s Director of Conservative Outreach, on how he decided to take action for climate after growing up in a deeply conservative family in rural Georgia.

  13. The GOP is betting that promoting private sector innovation to curb emissions without targeting fossil fuels that are the biggest source of greenhouse gases will enable the party to win competitive oil and gas producing House districts won by Democrats in 2020.

    The task force report, shared with POLITICO, contains six pillars: “Unlock America’s Resources,” “Beat China and Russia,” “Let America Build,” “Build Resilient Communities,” “American Innovation” and “Conservation with a Purpose.”

    Without those themes, Republicans aim to pursue the party’s well-trodden policy ideas such as promoting domestic production and export of “all of the above” energy resources, including oil and gas, along with zero-carbon technologies such as wind, solar, small modular nuclear reactors, hydrogen and carbon capture. They also want to streamline permitting to reduce obstacles to building clean energy and traditional energy infrastructure, including pipelines, LNG terminals and mines to produce critical minerals.

  14. A conspiracy is afoot within the Conservative Party of Canada. Not all the plotters have been identified, but they’re known to include a handful of senior strategists, one former cabinet minister, and Jean Charest, the only leadership candidate with any hope of beating Pierre Poilievre.

    Their goal is to make the party adopt a serious climate change policy.

    “The party has to get it right on this issue because if we don’t, we are just not going to get elected,” Charest told me on a call at the end of May. “I think there is a cumulative realization after ’15, ’19 and ’21 that this is the challenge we have.”

    Caveats apply. For one, the notion of a “cumulative realization” is quite a stretch. I was at the leadership debate in Edmonton and can report climate concern was not a prevailing vibe either on or off the stage.

  15. “After the 2019 campaign, we heard from several candidates who said that climate change came up regularly at the door and was the most difficult issue for them to answer on,” Mader said. “There were a lot of voters out there who said, ‘We agree with you on other things, but we won’t consider a party that we don’t think takes climate change seriously.’ And a lot of my thinking and others’ recently has been based around that.”

    That was the catalyst for like-minded Tories who formed a support group called Conservatives for Clean Growth. Think of it as the HQ for the Conspiracy To Make Conservatives Take Climate Change Seriously (or at least make Canadians believe they do). In early May, the group’s co-chairs — former federal cabinet minister Lisa Raitt and former Alberta MLA Jim Dinning — spelled out their vision in an article for The Line entitled, “Cutting emissions can be a win for Canada.” What it boiled down to was this: There’s money to be made in renewable energy, and isn’t making money what Conservatives are all about? Plus, don’t worry, we can keep producing all the oil and gas we like so long as we invest in carbon capture.

  16. Poilievre’s stated goal is to make Canada the “freest” country in the world (a title currently held by either Singapore or Switzerland, depending on who’s counting) and “give Canadians back control of their lives.” His message is that “gatekeepers” are denying Canadians the prosperity, freedom and security that should be theirs.

    He is most clear about what and whom he is against.

    He embraced the self-styled “freedom convoy” protest and he opposes vaccine mandates and mask mandates. He would repeal the carbon tax and the clean fuel standard, and would change federal regulations to make it easier to approve oil and gas projects and pipelines.

  17. Rightwing Tory MPs should stop portraying concerns over the climate and nature as “woke”, and understand that voters are deeply concerned about the crisis, the Conservative minister Zac Goldsmith has warned.

    “What I’m trying to persuade people is that this stuff is not remote, it’s not trendy, it’s not woke, it’s not nice to have and it’s not a waste of UK taxpayers’ money,” he said. “This is fundamental.”

    The government must have a strong answer to people’s environmental concerns, he said. “[To say that] caring about the world is somehow woke – I find that stupid,” he added. “Nature restoration, the climate crisis, sewage in our rivers – people care fundamentally about these things.”

    He continued: “If a party has no answer to these questions, they should not be elected.”

  18. Goldsmith was speaking to the Guardian at the Cop27 UN climate summit in Egypt, where he has been trying to gather support for moves to protect forests around the world.

    He gave an example: “If the Congo Basin [rainforest] goes, two-thirds of the rainforest goes, then agriculture goes, and we will see disaster on a scale that makes anything in my lifetime look like small fry.”

  19. From Anti-Government to Anti-Science: Why Conservatives Have Turned Against Science

    Empirical data do not support the conclusion of a crisis of public trust in science. They do support the conclusion of a crisis of conservative trust in science: polls show that American attitudes toward science are highly polarized along political lines. In this essay, we argue that conservative hostility toward science is rooted in conservative hostility toward government regulation of the marketplace, which has morphed in recent decades into conservative hostility to government, tout court. This distrust was cultivated by conservative business leaders for nearly a century, but took strong hold during the Reagan administration, largely in response to scientific evidence of environmental crises that invited governmental response. Thus, science-particularly environmental and public health science-became the target of conservative anti-regulatory attitudes. We argue that contemporary distrust of science is mostly collateral damage, a spillover from carefully orchestrated conservative distrust of government.

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