The first rule of fighting for climate change is DON’T talk about climate change
Context is everything when advocating for renewable energy policies, and echoing the rules of Fight Club, the first rule of advocating for climate change-related policies is not to talk about climate change.
For any of us who have made the issue of climate change a primary concern — writers, policy wonks, investors, or simply interested parties — we can all relate incidents where the sheer mention of the phrase “climate change” has been met with scoffing and mockery. The phrase has become so polarizing and laden with innuendo, fallacies, and strife.
“In some ways, it functions as what we would call a ‘dog-whistle’,” said Leah Stokes, UC Santa Barbara political science professor, who is one of two authors of new research which investigated how people connect — or don’t — with hot-button issues related to climate change — such as renewable energy legislation. A “dog whistle,” according to the research, is a term or statement that, for certain audiences, means something entirely different to the general populace, and yields a much more explosive reaction. According to the research, published in the journal Nature Energy, when it comes to renewable energy policies, conservatives are afraid of economic loss and major lifestyle changes, while the fear of not enacting such policies for liberals is fraught with fears of economic loss and major lifestyle changes.
The study, Renewable Energy Policy Design and Framing Influence Public Support in the United States, found that public support for renewable energy was very strong in the United States, and the vast majority of people in the country support renewable energy portfolios in their respective state. Unsurprisingly, California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Iowa all have an abundance of renewable energy and an abundance of support for renewable energy. Meanwhile, the southern and mountain states have little support and little renewable energy.
“Trump is president right now and therefore we’re really unlikely to see new federal laws trying to support climate change legislation or renewable energy policy, or dealing with environmental problems,” Stokes said, adding that their research tried “to understand what kinds of messages would work with the public and how that would translate into more states actually doing something about these issues.”
Of course, there are the outliers, such as Florida, which not only has significant wind and solar energy resources as well as significant public support, but absolutely no renewable energy policy. Further, though a little more unsurprisingly, states which have support for renewable energy decreasing towards 50% place their state legislators in difficulty, tending to be less interested and committed in pursuing renewable energy policies.
To propel renewable energy policy and support, talking about climate change is simply not helpful — not really for liberals or conservatives. Context is everything. Put the idea of renewable energy into context with jobs, electricity costs, or pollution, however, and a person’s opinion of renewable energy will be significantly different.
“We’ve found that climate change is not an effective frame to gauge people’s opinion about renewable energy, so whether it’s Democrat or Republican talking about climate change, no matter how we frame it, if we talk about climate change it doesn’t move people,” said Stokes.
“I think it’s because they already have a pretty strong view on the connection between renewable energy policies and climate change,” added Christopher Warshaw, of MIT, and co-author of the report. “Their view is already baked in, so you can’t frame the question in a way that triggers a change.”
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