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How Red-State Mayors Are Addressing Climate Change in Their Communities

By Ellen Hall
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For local officials in conservative communities, addressing the ever-more-visible impacts of climate change requires a delicate balance. Ignoring their regions’ vulnerabilities is not an option – but in many cases, neither is uttering the words “climate change.” So polarizing and politicized has that term become that it can shut down conversations before they even begin.

So, how do you tackle an important issue that you can’t even talk about? As is so often the case with sensitive topics, it’s all about the framing.

Promoting climate solutions without saying “you-know-what”

A recent survey of 200 local governments across 11 Great Plains states asked how they are helping prevent and prepare for climate impacts. With federal climate policies in doubt, these mayors, public health professionals, county commissioners, and other officials feel an increased responsibility to take action locally. 

To engage members of the community who may be doubtful or actively dismissive about climate change, the officials favored a strategy that emphasized co-benefits and common sense. For example:

  • Rather than argue over the cause of climate change, focus on the need to improve the quality of our air and water
  • Frame initiatives in terms of saving money, smart growth/planning, and responsible resource management
  • Mention other benefits (besides carbon reduction) of climate solutions, such as providing healthier lifestyles and protecting nature

The focus on benefits has garnered support for such forward-thinking solutions as a methane-capture system on a landfill in Fargo, North Dakota. Not only is that community helping cut greenhouse gas emissions – they’re also generating revenue by selling the methane to the local electricity company as a source of renewable energy

Pragmatism over partisanship

Public officials aren’t the only ones seeking ways to promote solutions without saying the phrase-that-must-not-be-named. As this New York Times article explains, midwestern teachers, journalists, and even farmers themselves are navigating this tricky middle ground.

Kansas grain farmer Doug Palen firmly believes in no-till farming, which helps prevent erosion while also conserving water and trapping carbon in the soil. He’s a climate pioneer in many ways, largely out of necessity – yet “climate change” is not a concept he embraces.

Carl Priesendorf, a community college science teacher in Kansas City, MO, begins by discussing the benefits of science that we enjoy every day – such as electric power – to create a sense of positivity and acceptance before introducing any climate-related topics like rising temperatures.

And when Kansas state representative Annie Kuether advocates for clean energy before the Republican-controlled legislature, she focuses on job creation and other economic advantages – like the extra income farmers receive for hosting wind turbines and solar panels on their land.

For people to embrace climate action, it’s not always necessary for them to accept that climate change is happening, or that it’s caused by human activity. It’s often more convincing to show them how climate solutions can solve a problem or protect against an impact they’re facing, whether that’s drought, air pollution, floods, severe storms, traffic congestion, or high energy bills. When viewed from this angle, solutions like clean energy or smart infrastructure shift from political to practical – and the concept of “being prepared” tends to resonate with Americans regardless of political affiliation.

Our new messaging guide, Let’s Talk Communities and Climate: Communication Guidance for City and Community Leaders, echoes this approach. Download it for research-tested language and easy-to-follow processes to help you have more productive, less divisive conversations about climate.