Jerry Taylor believes he can change the minds of conservative climate skeptics. After all, he helped plant the doubts for many in the first place.
Taylor spent years as a professional climate denier at the Cato Institute, arguing against climate science, regulations, and treaties in op-eds, speeches, and media appearances. But his perspective slowly began to change around the turn of the century, driven by the arguments of several economists and legal scholars laying out the long-tail risks of global warming.
Now he’s president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian-leaning Washington, DC, think tank he founded in 2014. He and his colleagues there are trying to build support for the passage of an aggressive federal carbon tax, through discussions with Washington insiders, with a particular focus on Republican legislators and their staff.
A small but growing contingent of fiscal conservatives and corporate interests are arguing for similar policies in the United States. They include party elders like former secretary of state George Shultz, energy giants like Exxon Mobil, and nearly two dozen college Republican groups. Taylor and others believe it’s conversations like these—with political elites, and focused on policies they can justify in conservative terms—that could eventually lead to real action on climate change.
While much of the research and debate today focuses on figuring out the right mix of clean energy sources, or on developing better and cheaper technologies, the real breakthrough that’s required might lie in the science of persuasion. We’ll never generate enough clean energy to dramatically cut emissions in the next few decades—while abandoning fossil-fuel plants that still work perfectly well—as long as so many political leaders adamantly deny even the existence of anthropogenic climate change.
As it happens, the academic literature offers insights on what drives such shifts in political sentiment, and it very much conforms with the approach that the Niskanen Center and other groups are taking.
Lesson one: Pick the right targets
Political scientists consistently find that mass opinion doesn’t drive the policy debate so much as the other way around. Partisan divides emerge first among “elites,” including influential advocacy groups, high-profile commentators, and politicians, says Megan Mullin, an associate professor of environmental politics at Duke University.
They, in turn, set the terms of debate in the public mind, spreading the parties’ views through tested and refined sound bites in media appearances, editorials, social media, and other forums.
For the most part, people first align themselves with groups, often political parties, that appeal to them on the basis of their own experiences, demographics, and social networks. They then entrust the recognized leaders of their self-selected tribe to sort out the details of dense policy and science for them, while vigorously rejecting arguments that seem to oppose their ideologies—in part because such arguments also effectively attack their identity.
Fires ravaged the West, hurricanes battered the East—and still emissions continued to rise.
In fact, political predisposition is by far the most influential factor in determining a person’s “perceptions and attitudes about climate change,” noted Mullin and Patrick Egan, an associate professor of politics at New York University, in a 2017 analysis in the Annual Review of Political Science.
In many ways, the climate-change debate is ensnared in the culture wars that have consumed US politics over the last three decades.
“Positions on climate change have become symbols of whose side you are on in a cultural conflict divorced from science,” Dan Kahan, a Yale professor of law and psychology who has closely studied this issue, has said.
In the late 1980s, nearly 70 percent of Americans across the political spectrum expressed a similarly high level of concern about the issue, according to Gallup polling. But a gap has steadily widened along party lines in the decades since, driven…