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Why Conservative Communities Are Coming Around on Climate Change

By Ellen Hall
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For many people, whether they accept the existence or seriousness of climate change is not so much about science as it is about identity. People define themselves in large part by the social or political groups they belong too – which means Americans who identify as conservative Republicans tend to express less concern about climate change and are more supportive of Trump’s climate policies than other Americans.

However, one of the most persuasive arguments for accepting climate science is seeing the evidence with your own eyes – and in many parts of America, the impacts are increasingly hard to ignore. 

Persuasion by personal experience

Exceptionally heavy rains in late April and early May of this year caused major flooding in five Midwestern states, reaching record levels in 14 locations. Historic floods also occurred in Louisiana and Mississippi in 2016, and Missouri in 2015.

Extreme rain events have become more frequent across much of the U.S. in the last 60 years, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. As the National Climate Assessment points out, warmer air can hold more moisture than cooler air, leading to heavier precipitation.

Though the Mississippi and its tributaries run through largely red states, the unusually heavy rain and severe flooding of recent years is causing many locals to rethink their climate views. Aside from the rain, they’ve also noticed milder winters, and the start of the hunting season has shifted later and later each year. As Reuben Bellamy of Cairo, IL, says, “Our hunting is nowhere near as good as it used to be. I think climate has something to do with that.”

Farmers in the Midwest are also seeing extreme shifts from severe drought to heavy rain, adding an extra level of uncertainty to a profession that “lives and dies by the weather.”

Solutions we can agree on

Conservatives in these communities may be more accepting of climate change, but that doesn’t mean they’re eager to talk about it. As this article points out, they may admit privately to their beliefs, but continue to express doubts when among their peers.

For public officials in these areas who understand the need for climate solutions, the key is to avoid talking about “climate change” and instead talk about resilience and preparedness. Bruce Bartlett, a former policy and economic aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, calls this “treating the symptoms.” Where sea levels are rising, don’t get sidetracked debating about the cause – focus on building a seawall.

Infrastructure also happens to be a major priority of the Trump administration, making now a good time to call for new investments. In March the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, a coalition of 75 mayors and associations, outlined a proposal for $7.93 billion to improve storm and flood resilience along the waterway.

Our focus has been: How do we really increase the number of solutions that are on the table?

But when talking about solutions, it’s also important to choose your language carefully. When people don’t like the solution to a particular problem, they are more likely to deny that the problem exists. Conservatives often object to climate solutions because they think they will be damaging to the economy – so advocates of clean energy, for example, should talk about job creation, cost savings, and health benefits. Across the country, from Sweetwater, TX to a coal museum in Kentucky, locals have embraced wind and solar not because they are concerned about climate change but because of the economic advantages. Energy independence and freedom of choice are also benefits that resonate with both parties.

For more tips on how to effectively communicate about climate issues and make climate action a priority where you live, download our report Let’s Talk Communities & Climate: Communication Guidance for City and Community Leaders.