It’s Time for Environmentalists to Pitch Their Political Playbook

Tuesday’s drubbing of Democrats in the mid-term elections is proof positive of why environmentalists must ditch their playbook and find more effective ways to reach voters.  Environmentalists, led by hedge fund manager Tom Steyer and his climate-action PAC NextGen, spent nearly $85M to elect climate-friendly candidates, the vast majority of whom lost not only House and Senate races, but gubernatorial races as well.  Politico has the story here.  Millions in dollars were wasted with very little, if anything, to show for it.

According to Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club “We lost far too many races yesterday. There’s no way, or no desire, on any of our parts, to spin this, to try to throw some sunshine into a story that has some pretty disturbing elements,”  According to John Light over at Grist, the news was overwhelmingly bad.

When it comes to environmental issues, including climate change, environmentalists are failing miserably to connect with the average voter.  It’s not because voters don’t care about the environment – they do.  It’s just not a high priority, and it’s certainly less of a priority when people are worried about keeping their jobs and putting food on the table.

Take my home state of Maryland for example.  Maryland is one of the bluest states in the Country with a 2-1 voting registration, but this week the people of Maryland overwhelmingly voted for the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Larry Hogan.  It’s also one of the more progressive states when it comes to environmental protections.  Yet, the election wasn’t even close – Hogan won by over 10 points.  And he won by focusing almost singularly on jobs, taxes and the economy.

The numbers speak for themselves.  Environmentalists must begin bridging the political divide, stop using the environment as a political wedge issue and appeal to all voters, not just Democrats.  Republicans Don’t Hate the Environment – Just Some Environmentalists.  This not only goes for climate change, but all environmental issues (e.g., failing water infrastructure, species protection, etc.) requiring thoughtful deliberation on policy solutions and mobilization of the public to act.

Yesterday, ConserveFewell hosted a roundtable lunch with Dan Kahan of Yale Law School, who has studied and written extensively on environmental matters and science communication.  The purpose of the gathering was not to solve climate change or to change each other’s minds on controversial topics.  Rather, we met to engage because we all care about the issues.  We had a robust discussion , both liberals and conservatives, on the polarizing environment of environmental issues such as climate change.  According to Kahan, much of the toxic political discourse and our views on the environment are often untethered to empirical facts and evidence and can be explained by our cultural and political identities shaped by those with whom we identify.  These strong cultural factors make us all predisposed to overlook or tune out the evidence and pick and choose information that tends to reinforce our own beliefs.  The consequence is we talk past, over, or at each other, if we even talk with one another at all.  We have lost the art of civic engagement and civil discourse.  As Kahan puts it,

Essentially, the science communication environment has become polluted with antagonistic cultural meanings that transform “positions” on global warming into badges of membership in & loyalty to competing cultural groups. Those meanings effectively disable the faculties that diverse citizens use, very successfully most of the time, to align their own decisionmaking (personal & collective) with the best available evidence.

And according to Kahan’s research, more science literacy does not lessen the level of polarization.  We can educate all we want, and it won’t move the needle.  Which reinforces my long-held view that credibility and truthmaking matter.  To change skeptical minds requires imbuing greater confidence in the underlying science, the trustworthiness of those communicating the science, and common sense solutions that don’t threaten the economy and the public’s sense of financial security and wellbeing.  This can be done, but it will take time and only with greater and more deliberative engagement across the political divide.