Editor’s Note: The Millennial Voices series is written by and for Millennials to foster nonpartisan discussion. Ben Link is a junior at American University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
In Part I of this blog series, we examined the reasons why millennials choose not to identify as “environmentalists.” As one millennial explained to NPR, the term “environmentalist” has been “sort of corrupted...politicized.”
This statement illustrates a shift happening to the overall language used in the American climate change debate. In recent years, phrases such as “climate change” and “global warming” have become laced with political connotations.
As more words in this debate become buzz words used to signal which party one sides with, we progress further from the chance of collaboration and move more towards a language of polarization. The debate will move away from one rooted in fact and evidence and instead become an argument about political identity.
If we wish to make movement on climate legislation, we must reframe the way in which we talk about environmental issues.
Social scientists are proposing using two methodologies to guide how to adjust the way climate issues are presented in order to bridge the gap between liberals and conservatives: moral foundations theory and system justification.
Moral foundations theory identifies liberals to be more moved than conservatives by the idea of innocent people being harmed, while conservatives are more likely to react to notions of disgust. For example, when environmental issues are framed in a way of showing that there is a need to clean and purify the now-polluted and contaminated environment, there is less of a divide in general environmental attitudes between liberals and conservatives.
System justification focuses on appealing to people’s desire to belong to a great, functional system. When a good system appears to be failing, people will want to take action to restore and maintain this system. Therefore, in discussing climate change, some will respond better to notions to preserve and maintain the environment today in order that future generations can enjoy it.
A third method to present climate issues is to eliminate any mention of the term “climate change” altogether and instead identify the issues that truly motivate people towards action - just as one Kansas program did. Project managers chose to focus on “thrift, patriotism, spiritual conviction and economic prosperity” instead of trying to persuade people to reduce fossil fuel use. Their efforts resulted in increased renewable energy use.
Citizens competed with one another to become more energy-efficient (thrift). Civic leaders embraced green jobs to increase employment opportunities and farmers were willing to lease land for wind turbines after hearing they could provide a stable source of income (economic prosperity); Local ministers and religious citizens realized an obligations to act as stewards of a God-given world (spiritual conviction); and Boy Scouts were enlisted to install weatherization kits to emphasize conservation for future generations (patriotism). Not once was climate change mentioned, yet environmental and economic progress was still made.
This example shows environmental policy does not have to be a politically contentious issue. In fact, it hasn’t always been. The Clean Air Act passed Congress with only one House member voting against it. More recently, Republican Senator John McCain and then-Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman introduced bills in 2003, 2005, and 2007 to create a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions.
However, by 2009, McCain called a climate bill sponsored by Republican Senator Lindsay Graham and Lieberman "horrendous." Additionally, President Obama’s plan to cut power plant emissions by 30% in the next 15 years is being met with opposition.
The nonpartisan Georgetown Climate Center and the Georgetown Public Policy Institute found that 87% of Americans support some type EPA action on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, including 78% of Republicans and 94% of Democrats. Additionally, a Pew survey found that 69% of Americans agree there is solid evidence the earth is warming. With such strong support for climate change matters, environmental policy should not be so politically contentious.
Continuing legislative inaction bears both environmental and economic costs. Nonpartisan figures from institutions like the Pentagon urge taking action now, not in the future, basing their stance on fact and evidence, not political identity. To move environmental policy away from polarized politics, the language used in the climate change debate must be reframed to recognize that not all methods universally appeal both to liberals and conservatives and to acknowledge that different issues (e.g., economic, environmental, future prosperity) motivate people to action.
Ben Link is a Policy Intern at MAP and is currently an undergraduate student at American University majoring in CLEG (Communication, Legal Studies, Economics, Government). Ben has served many campus positions including council member for the school’s grant program, the Eagle Endowment, director of the Student Government Community Service Coalition, and teaching assistant for the School of Public Affairs Leadership Program.
As a tax-exempt nonprofit organization governed by Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, Millennial Action Project (MAP) is generally prohibited from attempting to influence legislative bodies in regards to policy and legislation. It is important to note guest authors frequently take firm stances on issues and policy matters that are currently being debated by policymakers; when they do, however, they speak for themselves and not for MAP, its board, council or employees.