FARRON COUSINS FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
A recent article published in Ars Technica discussed several conservative leaders -- ranging from religious figures to former Republican politicians -- attempting to convince conservatives that climate change was an issue that needed to be addressed by everyone, not just the liberals in the United States. The article discusses various ways that these conservatives are trying to approach the issue, from citing biblical passages about protecting the Earth, to educating conservative voters about the benefits of a carbon tax.
The Ars Technica article touched on a very important subject that is too often left out of discussions on climate change: Why are Republican politicians so successful when it comes to getting voters to vote against protecting the environment?
Polls from recent years have shown that majorities of Republicans, Democrats and those who don't describe themselves as either Republican or Democrat all believe that climate change is real, so we know that there is a general acceptance of climate science among the public. Yet the majority of elected Republicans in Washington, DC -- the party that controls all branches of government at this time -- either outright deny climate change or question the scientific consensus. So how can a party that openly attacks climate science and environmental protections win the support of people who claim to be concerned about the environment?
The most obvious (and easiest) answer to the question of why the Republican Party is more likely to deny the existence of climate change or to acknowledge but ignore it, is the money that the party receives from the fossil fuel industry. According to OpenSecrets, the oil and gas industry gave more than $53 million to the Republican Party in 2016, compared to the $6.2 million that they gave to the Democratic Party.
While that money may account for the lack of concern or outright denial of climate change among elected officials, it doesn't explain why Republican politicians have been successful in convincing voters who believe in climate change that the problem isn't important.
One possible explanation for why Republicans have been successful could be due to the way in which they frame the climate debate and in the ways the brain processes fear. For too long, Republican politicians have been feeding the public lies about the need to get rid of "job-killing regulations" and rein in "government overreach." These are phrases that are often used to describe the Environmental Protection Agency and the safeguards that are put in place to protect the environment.
When Republican officials frame environmental protections in this way -- telling voters that these protections come at the cost of the voters' own economic security -- they are manipulating the immediate fears of voters. If a person is afraid that they may not be able to feed their family next month because they could lose their job due to "government regulations," they will always place that immediate fear over the "far off" danger of a warming planet.
It all comes down to a form of psychological manipulation, where the politicians are trying to play on the immediate fears of the voters -- such as economic uncertainty -- and getting them to weigh those irrational fears more than the threat of rising sea levels or excessive air pollution. Psychological studies offer a glimpse into how these two fears (fear of a warming planet vs. the fear of economic uncertainty) are at odds:
When we are uncertain … we grab on to anything that answers our questions, because that sense of knowing affords us a reassuring feeling of control. Control is vital to anyone who is afraid, worried, uncertain … A risk imposed on us feels scarier than when we choose to take it ourselves.
In the example of combatting climate change versus repealing regulations, the "risk" that is put on voters is being put on them by the government, according to politicians, making it more unacceptable than the risk the voter takes by choosing to ignore climate change. Climate safeguards become the bogeyman that conservatives use to manipulate the fears of economic uncertainty, causing voters to vote against their own self-interest.
The fact that climate change denying politicians have controlled this narrative is disappointing, considering that a body of available evidence shows that the environmental protections enacted by the government actually create more economic activity compared to removing them. The "economic uncertainty" talking point could easily be derailed by opposition using the many studies available showing the net benefit of these safeguards.
A recent poll from Yale seems to confirm this theory, as more than half of the respondents said that climate change will harm the country, but fewer than 40 percent believed that it would harm them, personally. So while people may understand that danger is looming, they believe that they are outside of the risk pool.
Again, it all comes down to how the issue is framed. While many liberals have been framing the issue as environmental, Republican politicians switched it to an economic issue by claiming that protecting the environment could come at the expense of a voter's job or their industry, or that it could lead us down a slippery slope of alleged government overreach into our daily lives. There are too few instances where Democrats have attempted to educate the public about the economic benefits of addressing climate change and about the number of jobs that could be created by investing in renewable energy or through increased regulatory needs. The studies back up those claims, there just aren't enough people making this particular sales pitch to American voters.
By allowing climate change denying politicians to hijack the framing of the climate change argument, Democrats have allowed the propaganda to win. Those economic uncertainty fears of the American voters -- however wrong they may be -- are now cemented into their brains. And as the effects of climate change are beginning to rear their heads on the mainland of the United States, the issue requires a broad coalition of Democrats, Republicans and everyone in between to band together to fight the misinformation that is being served to us by politicians who are bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry.
Farron Cousins is the executive editor of The Trial Lawyer magazine, and his articles have appeared on The Huffington Post, AlterNet and The Progressive Magazine. He has worked for the "Ring of Fire" radio program with hosts Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Mike Papantonio and Sam Seder since August 2004, and is currently the co-host and producer of the program.
Follow him on Twitter: @farronbalanced.