On January 20, climate-conscious policymakers will be cast from the halls of power and replaced by a cadre of industry insiders whose giddy contempt for science will shape political discourse for the next four years. Trump is staffing his cabinet with climate deniers and energy lobbyists. He has promised to scrap the Clean Power Plan and withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. All this raises an important question.
In the age of Trump, how do we advocate for climate action?
Climate change is polarized. Clean energy is not.
First, the bad news.
Researchers have found there has been a small uptick in the number of Americans who understand that humans are driving climate change — but most of the gains have been made among Democrats. Republicans are actually less likely to accept climate science than they were 15 years ago. Thus, while public opinion in the aggregate is moving in the right direction, the issue has also become more polarized.
To the frustration of climate hawks everywhere: Facts don’t seem to matter. Republicans with a richer knowledge of science are no more likely to acknowledge that humans are driving the warming trend. Humans are more swayed, explains Yale law professor Dan Kahan, by their group identity than by facts. The recent proliferation of far-fetched conspiracy theories and fake news has played off this tendency, drawing die-hard conservatives into an epistemological vortex.
The single ray of light in all of this is that, while climate change is highly polarized, clean energy is not. Americans of every ideological stripe want more wind and solar energy.
In deep-red states like Texas and Iowa, wind energy is creating jobs and shrinking electric bills. In Oklahoma, Florida and Georgia, Tea Party Republicans are clamoring for solar power. Small towns in rural America have embraced renewable energy. This is where climate advocates have the greatest opportunity to reach the right wing — on the promise of clean power.
It’s the economy, stupid, and clean energy is a jobs bonanza.
Clean energy represents a lot of things that conservatives value: innovation, free enterprise, energy independence.
In addition, it is a huge job creator.
In August, climate advocate Bill McKibben wrote a piece for the New Republic in which he called for a World War II-scale mobilization to stop climate change.
In it, he pointed to the SolarCity’s forthcoming factory in Buffalo, New York, which will employ nearly 1,500 people. The United States, wrote McKibben, “needs 295 solar factories of a similar size to defeat climate change — roughly six per state — plus a similar effort for wind turbines.” That adds up to hundreds of thousands of jobs, a figure that does not include the thousands of men and women who will also be needed to build and operate those solar and wind installations.
What McKibben describes is precisely what so many working-class voters in Rust Belt states have been clamoring for — a resurgence of the manufacturing sector and a return of good-paying jobs that don’t necessarily need a college education.
Today, there are about as many Americans working in solar as in coal. It’s an astonishing figure when one considers that coal accounts for around a third of U.S. electricity generation, while solar amounts to less than one percent. Solar is a labor-intensive industry, in part because so many people are needed to perform installations.
Across the board, transitioning to wind and solar will generate more employment than sticking with coal and gas. Clean energy is a jobs bonanza, and it’s growing by leaps and bounds. In 2015, wind and solar made up more than two-thirds of the country’s new electric generating capacity.
For climate advocates, the economic argument for climate action can feel like a cop-out. To many, it sounds like, “You’re house is on fire. You should call the fire department because that will create good, middle-class jobs that can’t be outsourced.” But for a lot of Americans, this argument is really persuasive.
Moreover, clean energy could be a back door to persuading conservatives on climate. Communities that build out wind and solar power will see new jobs, affordable electricity and clean air. They may someday come to see that their efforts are also saving the world.
Conservatives will respond to a vision of the future that aligns with their values and priorities. In Trump’s America, we can find common ground on clean power — a chicken in every pot and a solar panel on every roof.
Business and military leaders can make the case for clean power.
A curious thing happened this election cycle. On several issues, Republican voters shifted their views to align with Donald Trump. Republicans came to regard Vladimir Putin more favorably and free trade less favorably, and both shifts took place more or less overnight.
It’s clear that conservatives are pliable to the opinions of conservative elites.
This fact should be exploited by climate advocates. Granted, there is no conservative with the platform, presence or force of personality of Donald Trump. But there are credible conservatives willing to speak up on renewable energy.
Prominent right-leaning capitalists like Hank Paulson and Mike Bloomberg can make a forceful case for clean power, as can high-ranking military officials. Corporations and the Pentagon are gobbling up wind and solar, a testament to the reliability and low cost of those technologies. Business and military leaders can advocate for clean energy publicly — and pressure lawmakers privately — making it difficult for Republican leaders to oppose policies that foster the growth of renewables.
Americans want action on climate change, but almost no one votes on climate.
It sounds contradictory, but it’s important to recognize that while the majority of voters on both sides of the aisle want to address climate change, hardly anyone votes on the issue. That has to change.
Most Americans believe that humans are driving climate change and are worried about the problem.
Most believe the United States should take part in the Paris Climate Agreement. Large majorities of Republicans and Democrats want the government to fund clean energy research, regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and give tax breaks to people who buy fuel-efficient cars and rooftop solar panels.
And on Election Day, a plurality of voters pulled the lever for the presidential candidate with the stronger plan on climate change.
But the simple fact is that almost no one actually votes on climate change — and too few climate-friendly voters showed up in the states that mattered, despite the overwhelming urgency of the carbon crisis.
Most Americans see climate change a remote threat, an ill-defined environmental catastrophe lingering beyond a distant temporal horizon. This, in part, can be blamed on reporters who fail to draw the line between climate and weather. In the absence of information, too few people understand that carbon pollution is fueling droughts, floods and severe storms today.
For the most part, however, Americans don’t vote on issues. They vote on identity. To the extent issues prove relevant, climate takes a back seat to concerns over the economy and national security. Researchers at Yale and George Mason University asked Americans which issues would be important to their vote.
Only among those most worried about global warming — a segment labeled “Alarmed” — did climate rank as a top-tier issue.
Looking at it another way, it’s left-leaning Democrats who are most likely to worry about the carbon crisis. But even among dyed-in-the-wool liberals, the economy ranks as the top concern, just as it does for moderates and conservatives. Among Democrats, the challenge is to make climate a more salient topic — one that moves voters to the polls.
Fortunately (and unfortunately), climate affects just about every issue. Rising temperatures imperil economic vitality and global stability. They undermine public health and national security. Climate change disproportionately hurts women and people of color, and it threatens to widen the gap between the haves and have-nots. Advocates can nudge global warming up the list of concerns by showing liberals that it’s linked to issues they already care about.
Voters worry about paying their bills and keeping their families healthy and safe. They want the chance to get a good job and climb the economic ladder. Clean energy can be the answer. You just have to ask the right question.