From the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events to rising sea levels, man-made climate change has already begun to bear environmentally-detrimental fruit. These trends jeopardize the environment and the human populations that they sustain. The effects of climate change, while often difficult to observe in a short period of time, will only continue to materialize unless significant steps are taken to curb its causes.
Climate change — defined as the significant increase global temperatures since America’s industrial revolution — is mostly fueled by the incredible amounts of carbon dioxide pumped into the air by human consumption of fossil fuels, such as coal and petroleum products. It follows, then, that phasing out fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, will help curb this crisis before too much damage is done.
However, the acknowledgment of climate change’s effects and subsequent attitudes toward renewables have devolved from matters of scientific and accepted fact into divisive subjects of increasingly virulent political and cultural dispute. While a near-consensus of scientists agree on the reality of climate change, current doubt among the public has persisted, largely due to the turnaround in conservative ideology in the last decade.
This turnaround owes itself to a confluence of political factors, stemming from both special interests of certain conservative donors and a reaction to Barack Obama’s presidency. Amid the realization that renewables posed a serious threat to oil, industry executives launched a campaign to undermine the legitimacy of climate change, and the shift to renewables that it encouraged. These selfish business interests, along with lasting perceptions of President Obama’s legacy, surely approach conservative opinion on climate change more rationally than morally sectarian narratives do.
Should shifting conservative opinion back to environmental protection, then, rely on countering the effects of these political occurrences? Democrats do not seem to think so. So far, Democrats efforts have instead opted to repeatedly emphasize the science behind climate change and its negative impact on both the environment and people.
This tactic might work well for citizens that already lean left, but solely addressing the moral aspects of environmentalism neglects citizens predisposed against this point of view. Consequently, liberals have failed to win over any real converts—87 percent of self-identified Republicans doubt the scientific consensus behind man-made climate change, an opinion shown to be the “gateway” to supporting meaningful action on climate change.
Winning non-environmentalists back to the cause must occur soon before the effects of climate change become grossly irreparable. In order to succeed, the left must swiftly deviate from its current approaches and redress the factors that originally fueled conservative antipathy toward environmentalism.
The first of these factors, large injections of political money from fossil fuel interest groups, reflect an artificial distortion of the energy market away from renewables. Even though renewable sources of energy are inherently much more efficient than fossil fuels, they largely remain less economically viable than would be presumed due to subsidies for fossil fuel industries.
This disparity continues in stark violation of free-market values, leaving room for conservatives to cozy up to the idea of renewable energy use. The economic benefits of renewables are clear— improvements in solar and battery technology could slim average electricity costs by a factor of three. The significant consumer benefits conferred by embracing renewables illustrates the large role of economic values in resonating environmentalism with non-environmentalists.
Just as important in reconciling acceptance of renewables with non-environmentalist ideology are the national security concerns of climate change. Looking at recent mass migrations out of Pakistan to the current water crisis in South Africa, it is blatantly obvious that climate abnormalities can fuel instability and uncertainty around the globe.
Climate change specifically plays a key role in aggravating existing conflicts and dynamics, as has been already acknowledged by military officials, increasing the likelihood that American military insertion becomes necessary for stabilization. Given conservatives’ dedication to military service members and restraint in foreign military involvement, climate-caused stresses should give any conservative American cause for real fear.
Much as arguments centering on economic viability and national security would help reverse the environmental antipathy sparked by fossil fuel interest groups, conservatives’ distaste with the Obama administration’s handling of energy policy could be ameliorated with appeals to personal security interests. President Obama’s rollout of executive orders, directives and regulations centered on environmental reform inextricably tied environmental reform to the idea of extreme federal overreach for many Americans.
What better to counter this sentiment than highlighting the increased self-sufficiency that accompanies renewable energy use? A shift away from power grid reliance would grant Americans the ability to power themselves independent of utility companies and the government. And, contrary to dismissals of renewables as less reliable than fossil fuels, encouragement of renewable energy use actually prompts energy production on a larger scale, bringing substantially decreased variation in collective energy output. Those pushing environmental initiatives would be wise to underscore how renewables, as reliable as they are pervasive, contribute to personal security interests.
In today’s political climate, it can be difficult to remember how effective environmental policy used to work. However, it is not enough for current environmentalists to reiterate the same calls to action, founded in the science, morality and sense of responsibility behind climate change. Effectively convincing entire populations of Republicans and non-environmentalists instead demands a tailored presentation founded on conservative ideology.
Extant conservative values provide the answer: Energy competition, national security and energy self-sufficiency begin with the priorities of consumers, the American military and independent civilians in mind, pitching environmentalism as a philosophy that can align with conservatism. Liberals that engage with these priorities in mind are not selling out their cause or helping deny climate change, but are pragmatists who understand the importance of bipartisanship in defeating climate change.
Lasting change will not start with only the interests and values of one side in mind, nor will those outside of the left be willing to embrace environmentalist policies without their concerns and points of view being considered.
Ethan Kessler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org