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Climate: ‘Nobody wants to be an outlier’

Katya Gordon

“Nobody wants to be an outlier.” –Republican Mickey Edwards

Some interesting research is out. Two seasoned social scientists, Leaf Van Boven and David Sherman, wanted to find out just how many Americans understand and believe what they are hearing about climate change, and how many are doing something about it. So they conducted interviews.

Their findings may surprise you. For starters, a majority of people in every political party agree that human-induced climate change is a problem. Yes, Democrats believe this by a wider majority, but more than half of both Independents and Republicans do as well.

The next question is, among these people who acknowledge the problem, who is interested in solving it? This probe was akin to interviewing people who believe it’s good to eat healthy food, to find out who is actually eating healthy food — and if they’re not, what would help them to start.

So, people were asked if they would support revenue-neutral carbon pricing. Among people who believe climate change is a problem, there was a chunk in all three parties who were not supportive of this legislation. When asked “Why not?,” one critical factor stood out: where the legislation came from.

The details of the policy itself mattered less than who proposed it. Democrats were more likely to support a policy proposed by Democrats, and Republicans were far more likely to support a policy that came from a Republican office. It’s distrust and tribalism that have created today’s status quo.

Why are we so driven by partisanship? This, too, was explored, with these findings: People have an exaggerated sense of their peers’ radicalism. When gauging actual beliefs with “estimated” beliefs about peers, both Democrats and Republicans believed their peers to be more radical than they were, and more radical than themselves.

“I can’t support this because none of my peers do,” seems to summarize this belief, which, as it turns out, is false. We are not as polarized as we think we are.

So, how to interrupt this negative partisan reaction? There is much we can do.

First, share this information! For example, every time a Democrat says “Republicans don’t believe in climate change,” there is your chance to enlighten him or her.

Second, explore and affirm your own moderate principles and don’t be afraid to share them with your peers. This can be about climate change, or anything else. Resist the force that pulls us toward radical polarization, which easily and shrewdly morphs into a veiled sense of superiority.

There are always two sides. Even if we plant ourselves firmly on one side on an issue, we lose nothing and can gain much by understanding the other side, or by appreciating points on the other side.

Third, use language that is affirming rather than divisive. Calling someone a climate skeptic rather than a climate denier is a simple example. Calling someone a water protector rather than a water protester is another. Affirming someone’s worth, on their own terms, may help him or her to open up to difficult or challenging ideas.

Bottom line: Try bringing your fists down around climate change.

Katya Gordon is a volunteer for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and a Two Harbors resident.