It seems that every election season, we hear more and more from politicians and pundits about how important it is for campaigns to talk about “kitchen table issues.” A political shorthand for the things average people care about day to day, the term “kitchen table issues” typically refers to economic issues like jobs, taxes and, right now, inflation.
Every year, millions of college students reconvene with their families at the Thanksgiving table to talk and argue about turkey, football and, yes, politics. In the name of familial harmony, controversial political issues are generally not a good topic for Thanksgiving dinner. Or so they say. But climate change is different: there’s a way to explain to even the most conservative relatives that addressing this issue will make their lives better, not in 50 years, but now. The climate conversation in America today exists in a kind of limbo; multiple polls show between 65% and 70% of Americans are concerned about climate change, yet fewer than 50% think it will affect them personally.
In other words, for many Americans, climate change is something that happens to other people, in other places, sometimes now, maybe more in the future. Contrast this sentiment with the quintessential kitchen table issues, such as gas prices, which you see on big signs every day and in your bank statement every month, and you start to see the problem.
The reason kitchen table issues hold so much weight in political circles, especially around election season, is that they have dramatic impacts on people’s decisions at the ballot box. Additionally, the reason these conversations happen at the kitchen table is because people see the impacts and importance of them on a daily basis, unlike climate change for many.
Consistently, the issue that Americans care most about is the economy (climate change doesn’t even crack the top 10), and you can pretty much track presidential approval ratings with gas prices for the last 50 years.
But that can change, quickly. In July of this year, the Supreme Court overturned 50 years of federally protected abortion access, and abortion suddenly became a kitchen-table issue. When Americans were asked about the most important issues facing the nation, abortion access ranked fourth, behind only inflation, the economy and the government, and ahead of immigration, racism and unity.
So why hasn’t climate change had its “kitchen table breakthrough?”
You could point to the millions of dollars spent by the oil industry trying to discredit climate science (and scientists), the decades of American presidents and politicians who refused to even acknowledge the issue or the fact that many people are more worried about feeding their kids tomorrow than feeding the world in 50 years. And you’d be right.
But none of us are going to solve these issues at the dinner table this Thanksgiving. What we can do is find a new way to talk about climate change, one that centers how the problems and solutions impact all of us and our day-to-day lives. And the best way I’ve found to do that is by talking about economics. Not abstract economics, not things like a commercial buildings energy efficient investment tax credit bill, a provision of the Inflation Reduction Act, but tangible, kitchen-table economics.
Climate activists for years have warned that unless we act now, we face global catastrophe in 30 years. These tactics aren’t wrong in principle — climate change is terrifying, and we should all be deeply concerned for the fate of our planet and each other — but this approach alone has clearly fallen short.
What if the reason we’ve failed to motivate the average American is because we’re missing half the argument? Our brains aren’t built to contemplate, internalize and act on existential threats to human civilization.
Proselytizers and evangelicals have understood this for centuries. Sure, you can always motivate a small section of the population by preaching damnation and hellfire. But your narrative becomes far more powerful when people believe they can be saved, when you talk about a Promised Land.
We need to show people that climate change isn’t just something to be afraid of. It’s also an opportunity. Who doesn’t want a brand-new set of free (or deeply discounted) electric home appliances?
The federal government is offering discounts ranging from 30% to 100% (based on area and household income) for electric stoves, water and space heaters, clothes dryers, insulation/ventilation, breaker boxes and electrical wiring. The average American household stands to save $1,800 a year by upgrading. Who wouldn’t want a 30% discount on a home solar energy system that could keep the lights on in a storm and slash (or potentially eliminate) their electric bill?
After Hurricane Ian, a small Florida community grabbed headlines as the some of the only people in the area with power following the storm, due largely to their investment in solar energy and community storage.
If these home incentives aren’t enough, what about $7,500 off a new F-150 that can tow over 9,000 pounds, power your house for a week and goes zero to 60 faster than a Camaro (oh, and takes gas prices off the kitchen table for good)?
And, for your uncle who complains every year about how “we used to build things here:”
Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, along with being the single largest climate intervention in history, also stands to create more than a million domestic manufacturing and assembly jobs by 2030, building all those things we talked about above and more. Those are good union jobs, the kind that offer a middle-class life for people without college degrees — the kind of jobs that have mostly vanished in the U.S. since the 1980s — the kind that conservatives love to promote. In this moment, especially if you have relatives worried about gas prices, inflation or finding a good job, it may also be helpful to talk about what they stand to gain from progressive climate policies.
You might even have a great Thanksgiving dinner.
Michael Redmond is a University of Michigan graduate student in the Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering Department and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.