Do You Care Too Much about Climate to Collaborate?

Believe it or not, your passionate concern for the climate may be holding back progress on the crucial environmental issue of our time.

Why? As the presidential election amply demonstrates, we live in polarizing times. People are divided by political party, COVID, racial reckoning, and, of course, climate change. The mere mention of these issues triggers “identity protective reasoning,” which causes us to react defensively, protecting the position of those in our ideological “tribe.” Too often, we then ignore information that doesn’t support our tribe’s positions, shun those in our ranks who dare to ask questions, and hurl insults towards with different views.

A recent poll shows that 25% of Americans say climate change is now their top issue: it defines who they are, how they live their lives, where they shop, who they donate money to, and who they vote for. The technical term for people driven by a single issue is “issue public.” For climate, the issue public is larger than ever, second only to abortion, and larger than guns, immigration, and homosexuality. That means climate is a trigger issue for many Americans.

Triggering identity protective reasoning causes problems when collaboration is criticized as “working with the enemy,” and when compromise is equated with surrender.  Fortunately, strategies exist to depolarize these situations. For example:

  • Make the issue local, personal, and specific. Rather than use broad terms like “climate change,” focus instead on specific impacts to flooded roads, lost property value, family health, farm productivity, and hunting opportunities. 
  • Focus on concerns most people share, such as health, security, and prosperity, rather than polar bears and melting glaciers.
  • Avoid “solution aversion,” which happens when people fear the cure is going to be worse than the disease. Championing cap-and-trade or a carbon tax, for example, alienates people concerned that government regulation of the economy is a foot in the door for socialism.

Scientists, policy wonks, business managers, and other experts know how to solve climate change. Viable technologies, policies, and market strategies exist that will reduce emissions to levels that are safe and healthy for the planet and economy. Yet, we won’t implement and scale these solutions, or discover new ones, without collaboration and compromise. And that won’t happen unless we overcome the blinding passion of zealotry that leads to a refusal to work with the enemy. 

So, do you care enough about climate change to hold your climate identity in check, to build bridges to people who don’t feel as strongly as you, and to experiment with novel solutions?  If you can do that, you might not always get your way, but together we can find a way forward.