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Populism Is the Key to Climate Action

Recent research on persuasion offers a manual for how to turn red states green.

People's Climate March demonstrators chant outside Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago, Illinois.
People’s Climate March demonstrators chant outside Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago.

Forty-nine percent of West Virginians are “worried” about global warming, and 64 percent think citizens should be doing more to address it. That’s in the state that’s least worried about climate change—everywhere else, the numbers are higher still. 

Getting people to care about climate change isn’t the primary problem anymore (although it would always help to see those numbers grow). The upcoming battle is over what sort of story voters craft around climate: whom they blame for the problem; what action they will support; and whether scientists, activists, and politicians can work together against fossil fuel industry influence to make a new, low-carbon society.

A review paper published in September by researchers at Yale’s Climate Change Communication lab tried to summarize and organize what we know about how to persuade people to support robust climate policy. While more research is needed, useful themes are already emerging from the data. It’s enough, if climate-motivated donors and activists have the will, to launch a full-scale strategy to make the most of the nine-ish years we have before 2030—the year when, according to estimates from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, catastrophe could become unavoidable. And since right now the Democratic Party is the only major party remotely interested in robust climate policy, this will mean changing Democratic tactics as well.  

One of the first and clearest lessons from the YCCC review is that lasting changes—shifts in beliefs firm enough to hold over time and withstand counterarguments—demand deep engagement. To achieve that, one effective strategy is the “deep canvas,” a political buzzword for a vulnerable, nonjudgmental conversation with a stranger about an important issue. In theory, this could occur between friends or acquaintances. From the activist’s perspective, the formula generally is that in a conversation by phone or in person lasting around 10 minutes, the canvasser shares a personal story that does not always relate to the issue at hand, but simply connects to a human feeling—a time you were helped out by someone else or experienced loss. Then the canvasser asks the subject to share a story of their own and, after this exchange, tries to guide the conversation to immigration, the humanity of transgender people, November’s election, or for our purposes, the need for urgent climate action. This seems to work better than any other activity identified so far at swaying people from a politics of isolation to one of empathy. 

A new podcast called To See Each Other, from the grassroots network People’s Action, provides a poignant example of deep canvassing in rural Michigan. A white man named Ed confirmed his support for a $15 minimum wage, but when asked if the wage should include undocumented immigrants, he gave a firm “no.” Ed was then asked about a time when he was in need of support, so he described his own struggle with addiction, homelessness, and incarceration, and how it affected his relationships with his family. As the conversation deepened, it emerged that Ed’s own father was an immigrant, and fled factory labor as a child. The canvasser asked him to consider the struggle of today’s undocumented immigrants in light of his father’s own story; reflecting on this altered Ed’s position completely.

Surveys show there’s a dearth of thoughtful conversations around climate. “Nearly one-third (31%) of Americans are now ‘alarmed’ about climate change,” the review paper’s authors write. “However, 59% of Americans ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ discuss the issue with family and friends.”

The conversations also need to have a clear takeaway that points to a systemic solution. Policing each other—changing social norms”—wont cut it: Littering is taboo in our society, but that hasn’t fixed our failed recycling system. “Fighting climate change” is a hopelessly unspecific framing: People need an action plan, and, to a certain extent, they need an enemy—the most obvious one here being big oil, a foil for corporate influence in our democracy writ large. To win rural America, climate policy needs to be populist. 

Last summer in northwest Iowa, I spoke with a Trump voter who had brought his daughter to a Democratic campaign event because it was one of the few opportunities he had to expose her to democracy. He was concerned about climate but convinced that liberal environmental policy was a plot to unplug poor people’s air conditioners in order for rich people to sustain their luxury.  

Democrats as well as climate advocates have struggled, in modern times, to win rural votes. But the deep canvass strategy offers an interesting hypothetical: What if this approach were implemented on a massive scale in currently red communities, employing local people in long-term campaigns, protected by a union, doing the work day in and day out, year after year? 

There’s already proof of concept for this sort of approach, albeit on a smaller scale and in a different context. Black Leaders Organizing Communities, for instance, responded to low Black turnout in Milwaukee in 2016 by turning 50 community members into professional organizers, who have since knocked on 350,000 doors on Milwaukee’s North Side (the city has about 240,000 Black residents) to ask, “What would it look like for Milwaukee’s Black community to thrive?” Black voter turnout in Milwaukee in 2018 was markedly higher.

Political campaigns and environmental groups already blanket inland states with young people pounding the pavement for a few months every four years; hiring locally and reorienting toward the long term in a coordinated way could build a lasting, national political consensus—exactly what’s needed for a long-term, robust climate change response. A truly serious twenty-first-century Conservation Corps—such as some groups have proposed as an update on the Roosevelt-era work program—wouldn’t just be planting trees but connecting citizens with the reality of the warming planet and the changes needed to address it. 

Democratic candidates fail in red areas not because Democratic ideas are bad or inherently opposed to rural interests, but because flagging investment in the task has dismantled the infrastructure needed to mount viable challengers. State and county parties are typically woefully underfunded. National environmental groups like Sunrise Movement and Food and Water Watch prioritize fieldwork, coordinating with grassroots organizations to build local initiatives and support citizen leadership, but are stretched thin. 

Money that could make all the difference, engaging rural states in a populist vision of climate policy, is going to more centralized and ideologically centrist endeavors instead. Last year, the South Dakota Democratic Party was $47,000 in debt. That same year, the Nature Conservancy raised $1 billion. Nonprofits like the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, and Greenpeace, with huge D.C. offices and assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, tend to assume centralized lobbying is a good investment. It’s unclear though, particularly in the last four years of Washington chaos, how effective that’s been. Or to take an example before the Trump era: For all the hell-raising in D.C. during the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline conflicts, a Democratic governor or majority on the Public Utilities Commission in South Dakota sure would have helped.

The infrastructure needed to win battles at the state and local level could be built over a series of years, redirecting money from the many-million-dollar ad buys that clog the airwaves every couple years for Senate candidates in Iowa, Kentucky, Kansas, and Arizona. Currently, that money is of questionable use anyway, because without a significant off-year presence, Democrats haven’t forged their own identity from the bottom up, often fielding candidates whose policy platforms aren’t that different from Republicans’.

Researchers tell us that vulnerable, nonjudgmental, face-to face-conversations are the best tool we have to build a consensus on climate. Wholesale investment in this strategy is not only our best rational bet; it also feels like the right first step toward the “care and repair” ethos needed to face this new age.