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Defend the Planet

Can environmentalists successfully appeal to a broader demographic?

Flickr- Olly Coffey

When we feel strongly about an issue or a cause, we naturally think about it in terms that we understand. But if you and I not only disagree about said cause, but actually think about it differently as well, how can we hope to come to an understanding?

Rob Willer addressed this question in an op-ed for the New York Times titled, “Is the Environment a Moral Cause?”

A recent poll suggests that a majority of Americans (and about half of all Republicans) would like the government to address climate change. But, when push comes to shove, Republicans support other causes they deem more worthy. Where’s the disconnect?

Willer points out something that’s so obvious, yet it completely blew my mind. As a “liberal”, I consider the environment a moral issue. I don’t have to be persuaded that climate mitigation is important, or that wildlife conservation matters, because from this perspective both are undeniably the right thing to do, no questions asked.

In contrast, conservatives do not necessarily view the environment as a moral issue, which is why they sometimes arrive at different conclusions (I realize I’m making sweeping statements here, but just go with it). So, even if the right is concerned about climate change, other issues take precedence. But here’s the brilliant part- if environmentalists talk about the environment in terms that conservatives understand, it’s possible to not only find common ground, but actually work together towards a common goal. Of course, the same strategy can work in reverse as well.

“To win over more of the public, environmentalists must look beyond the arguments that they themselves have found convincing...Such efforts to understand others’ moral perspectives might not only bring both sides in line on this important issue, but also foster the sort of sincerity and respect necessary to sustain a large-scale collective effort.”

In theory that’s all well and good, but it left me wondering- how does this apply to the current political climate and environmental efforts?

That answer revealed itself in yet again, another New York Times article, this time by Kirk Johnson (no, I do not do part time PR for the Times).

Johnson introduced me to Governor Jay Inslee of Washington state, who has proposed collecting a new charge on emissions from power plants, oil refineries, etc. What makes his plan unique, however, is that the revenue would go towards transportation and education, rather than energy or climate projects.

Johnson observes,

“By linking the money to broadly popular bread-and-butter programs, he hopes to build support for an antipollution policy that faces stiff opposition from Republicans and some industry groups.”

In other words, he’s appealing to the moral issues people across the board tend to identify with. The Governor is no dummy!

“You don’t even have to allude to climate change,” Inslee commented.  “One can support this simply on the fact that you want to support the education of your children.”

Inslee’s plan is genius for another reason though too. By punishing carbon polluters, he’s essentially reinventing the sin tax- a model that’s proven popular in the past. Much in the same way that Americans are comfortable taxing items like cigarettes and alcohol that are judged to be “bad”, this model could help the general public think about carbon emissions in similar terms.

While it’s unclear whether or not Inslee’s plan will take off, I do think we can see this as a positive step regardless. Between the crippling effects of climate change, the disappearance of the world’s forests, the loss of natural resources, and the damaging effects of pollution, it’s essential that the global community acts now. But environmental efforts will only be successful if we can get everyone on board, and thinking outside of the box is the best way to do that.