How to Sell Climate Action to Your Rural Conservative Neighbors

A field guide to difficult conversations about climate outside of big cities

Wind turbines near Minot, North Dakota. Photo: Ken Cedeno/Getty Images

State Representative Tiffiny Mitchell has a challenge. She is a Democrat from Oregon’s 32nd District, a beautiful region at the mouth of the Columbia River downstream from Portland. She’s also new to statewide politics in a region that’s seeing a growing urban-rural divide, and her district reflects that chasm. In fact, in December a coalition of loggers and farmers tried to oust Mitchell for supporting a bill that would increase regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. The recall efforts ultimately failed, but the incident highlights how Mitchell faces major headwinds in selling climate action to her rural constituents.

While Monmouth polling shows that 69% of Americans want the government to take action on the human causes of climate change, there’s a strong partisan skew. A much lower percentage of Republican voters support action than Democratic voters. When they agree on the need to address the climate crisis, they don’t necessarily agree on how, or who should bear the responsibility to act.

Mitchell recently asked for my help in dealing with this disconnect. I’ve been in the trenches of creating social license for wind energy globally, and I write regularly about climate action, and so I understand how she is not alone in shouldering the challenge of communicating both the urgency of climate change and how to shape the right solutions. Though many people understand the stakes of the crisis, oftentimes, they find it difficult to engage with their conservative friends, family, and neighbors who seem skeptical about climate action. Often they avoid the conversation entirely, simply because they don’t know how to begin. It’s a big, ugly subject, so they avoid it. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Cognitive scientist John Cook has spent years finding creative solutions to help people talk about this existential question. He was the driving force behind Skeptical Science, a site that identifies and debunks climate disinformation sound bites, memes, and arguments. Cook now works at the Center for Climate Communication at George Mason University, where he researches what arguments do and don’t on our messy human brains, and what is effective in countering the long-running disinformation that has so polluted our ability to deal with climate reality.

Cook is also a cartoonist. His Cranky Uncle series, which is being extended this month both as a book and a game, helps illustrate key points of climate communication. The spiral of silence is one of them. Often, people want to talk about climate change, but they choose not to introduce the subject—thinking internally that they are the only ones concerned. The problem is that the vast majority of people are concerned. The Monmouth polling found that 71% of Americans view climate change as a very serious or somewhat serious problem. So most people want to talk about it, but fear of conflict or being the only one who cares is stopping them from speaking up.

Don’t be afraid to have the conversation. But how you introduce the topic matters.

“What is the most important thing we can do to contribute to climate action? Open our mouths and talk about it!” Cook told me. “This is the key to building the social momentum that is the foundation of political action.”

The major lesson: Don’t be afraid to have a conversation. But how you introduce the topic matters. There’s a communication framework to follow that helps people build rapport to ensure a connection before introducing potentially contentious topics. Advocates should consider initiating the conversation with more innocuous and nonjudgmental phrasing while disclosing only the relevant information. The final step is just as important: agree on a resolution.

Katharine Hayhoe can speak to the effectiveness of this approach. Hayhoe is the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University; she’s also an evangelical Christian. She’s adopted a system of converting climate skeptics using shared commonalities — namely, her religion. Hayhoe connects with other evangelicals by talking about their shared faith and values. She establishes a personal connection and gets them into a place where they are willing to have an open-minded conversation about climate change.

Hayhoe is tapping into the upside of tribalism, something that’s very human and common across the political spectrum. But tribalism extends to many things besides religion and politics. It can be membership in a club, a family, a business or living in the country versus the city. It can be a common football team or other sports. There are multiple ways to find commonality with groups you are part of as you build rapport.

Mitchell, for example, has many things in common with all of her constituents, but she is still treated like an outsider in her coastal district. She’s from the far outskirts of Salt Lake City, Utah, and grew up in a conservative, Mormon family. Her hometown was consumed by the suburbs during her lifetime. The combination doesn’t allow her to lean into the rural upbringings and common connections with her constituents quite well enough. What she leans into are the common love of nature and rural living, the love of family, the appreciation rural and small-town dwellers feel for one another, and the common challenges of accessible housing and food.

Mitchell may come off as an outsider, but it’s undeniable that her political position grants her access. Every influential, powerful, and rich person in the district will take her calls, access that most people don’t have. She’s had at least a coffee with many of the key people on both sides of the fence as well as innumerable constituents—building the relationships that will help her help her entire district.

That’s an important point in a nuanced way. Our innate tribalism means we tend to defer to authorities who are within our tribes. High-status individuals inside of our various tribes impart opinions and we tend to agree with them. As an elected official, Mitchell has that advantage. Doors open for her. People listen to her. She’s the same person as she was before the election, but with a minor superpower, one she’s using for good.

You have to make a choice about what topics and battles are worth fighting, and focus on what gains you want to make.

But that’s also an explicit tactic that can be used. Let’s suppose you have a large extended family, one that gets together on the family ranch a couple of times a year. In that tribe, there are going to be a couple of people who everyone looks up to and listens too, more than not. If you change their minds, you change many of the members of the tribe’s mind too. And you rarely change the minds of people like that in front of other people. Private conversations, or at least very small group ones, allow you to shift people without social dynamics getting in the way. Sway the leaders and influencers and a lot of the tribe shifts without you having to persuade them personally.

The next stage of communication is disclosing relevant information. You have to make a choice about what topics and battles are worth fighting and focus on what gains you want to make. Do this by listening to people and finding out their views on climate change. Then tailor what you share with them to match where their heads are at, not the larger set of possible information. This will help narrow down the large range of potential issues to cover to compelling discussion points.

Next, understand what the steps along a journey toward embracing climate action might look like. A few years ago I created this continuum chart of climate science positions. In general, denialists and skeptics shift to the right side of this chart as evidence and other persuasive elements emerge. The number of people holding extreme positions to the left of the chart diminishes every year. The evidence is too strong.

Image: Michael Barnard

One path to follow is to attempt to shift a person’s perspective one position to the right in each interaction. Imagine that you are a millennial with a cranky uncle, as per John Cook’s cartoons. Each family occasion you have an hour to speak with him. If you move him one position each time, and he backslides one position every other time, you can move him along the spectrum to acceptance by increments after a year or two.

That backsliding is an important feature as well. Cognitive science tells us that we are all biased creatures. We give weight and attention to information that supports what we already believe, and we downplay or ignore information that doesn’t support our bias. There’s a rough rule of thumb that it takes 10 pieces of evidence that are contrary to a bias to one piece of evidence supporting a bias to overcome this very human tendency. And that does mean that the person you are communicating with will tend to hear things between interactions with you that push them in the wrong direction.

But let’s say you’ve found common ground, the conversation started gracefully, and you’ve covered some good material. Now it’s time for the closer: You want to get them to acknowledge a new position.

It’s important to note that this doesn’t require they acknowledge that they’ve changed their mind. People are incredibly bad at that, as many of the studies from psychologist Daniel Kahneman makes clear in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. And it doesn’t require that they acknowledge you’ve won. All it requires is that when asked what their opinion is, they are a bit further along in the progression to accepting climate change and the need for action.

Last is the big question of what outcome you actually need from people. In Mitchell’s case, a politician who has to enact action plans and gain support from them, it’s not 100% agreement. All she really needs is majority agreement and significantly diminished attacks on climate action plans—two different things.

You need full-throated support for climate change and climate action from enough people, but you also need to diminish opposition from the remainder.

Consultants Mike Casey and John Davies have both made the same points to me over the years. When they engage with clients to ensure that their clean economy projects in wind generation, Rockwool manufacturing, and similar industries are able to proceed through local planning and approval without significant hitches, they focus on the people who make the decisions—typically the planning board and its members. They profile these people and the major players in the region. They understand what they would have to gain and lose from a new manufacturing or generating facility establishing itself. They decide which people they are going to be able to shift based on what advantages they will gain from approval. And they spend a great deal of time ensuring that there is no large groundswell of opposition created by those who won’t gain—mostly by working with the people who will gain benefits to create excitement about the benefits early.

Those are the two ends of approval. On the one hand, explicit support. And on the other, diminished antagonism. The latter is all you can expect from some people and it’s good enough. You need full-throated support for climate change and climate action from enough people, but you also need to diminish opposition from the remainder. One is increasing a strength and the other is reducing a weakness. Both are useful.

In Mitchell’s district, there are many natural resource industries. Forestry, fishing, and agriculture are all big employers, which means focusing on climate action for these industries may prove beneficial. For example, there’s been a major push for reforestation that’s occurred globally, as well as agricultural innovation around low-tillage techniques to reduce soil carbon capture disruption. In the case of fisheries, oceanic acidification impacts on shellfish and potential ocean fertilization plans might be good focus areas. After all, if the forestry firms see a strong financial commitment to planting more trees which they can harvest sustainably in the future, they are less concerned about the other value propositions that those trees might be addressing.

Mitchell has options for selling climate action to her rural district. She’s just starting a lifetime of relationships and conversations that will shape her district and shape her. You are undoubtedly doing the same, but you might be able to do it more productively.

Chief Strategist, TFIE Strategy Inc. Business and technical future-proofing. Top Writer Quora since 2013. CleanTechnica, Forbes, Quartz+ more. In 4 books.

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