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Climate deniers are not popular in progressive circles.
When I interviewed people for my recently released book about polarization on environmental protection, I heard liberals tell me how much they hated conservatives because they don’t care about climate change. One participant in my study compared climate denial to smoking, explaining that when she learned someone questioned climate science, or wasn’t committed to making meaningful personal actions to reduce their carbon footprint, she would go out of her way to avoid them.
I also learned that conservatives don’t have much time for what they perceived to be mock concern for the environment.
Two popular stereotypes dominated my participants’ images of how liberals and conservatives feel about the environment: conservatives told me they pictured liberals in a condominium overlooking a city, obsessing over their recycling, and boasting about buying over-priced produce at a local farmers’ market. In this stereotype, liberals are cast as out-of-touch with nature, as hypocritical virtue-signalers, and as having a serious superiority complex.
Certainly, there is evidence to suggest that liberals are more likely than conservatives to recycle and express a preference for local food, so there is some truth to this stereotype.
On the other hand, liberals pictured conservatives as anti-environment; as willfully prioritizing profit over environmental protection. They pictured conservatives in big, diesel trucks, spending their leisure time ripping up forest trails in ATVs. They imagined conservatives to be the single biggest barrier to climate action.
Once again, there is some truth to this stereotype. Conservatives tend to prefer to drive pick-up trucks and although rates of climate denial are low and declining, conservatives are more likely than liberals to challenge the idea that climate change is caused by humans.
These two stereotypes do not simply exist in parallel, facing one another as equals. Instead, the stereotypical liberal is associated with more power and privilege than the conservative stereotype. This hierarchy is a significant driver of polarization over climate change – but one we each have the power to disrupt.
Consider two examples: first, a study of Canadians’ food preferences shows that consumers with the most education and income prioritized food that was not only delicious and sophisticated, they also wanted their food to be ethically good. In other words, if foie gras was once the pre-eminent upper-class food, now it is line-caught, wild halibut sold by a local fisherperson cooperative. This example shows us how environmental ethics are bound up with what it means to have “good taste.”
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The second example is from a survey of Dutch people’s beliefs about key social issues, including climate change. The study reveals four orientations toward climate change: we need extensive state policy to address climate change; everyone needs to do their part; we need to rely on technology and innovation; and there’s nothing we can do or should do. Critically, these four beliefs are associated with social class in the order they’re written: those with the most power and privilege want to see state action, while those with the least, question whether it’s happening at all.
This hierarchy reflects existing class hierarchies and incorporates environmental beliefs and practices.
Recall that conservatives are more likely than liberals to question climate change, while liberals are more likely than conservatives to recycle and buy local. These patterns have endured for as many decades as survey researchers have been measuring environmental beliefs and behaviors. What is new is the organization of these attributes into a classed, moral hierarchy.
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So, what’s the answer to the logjam of polarization?
The most effective way for civil society to contribute to dissolving a social hierarchy is through empathy. Studies of the process of destigmatization show that once we can see people as individuals with hopes and fears, we are less likely to deem them unworthy of our respect and recognition.
My interviews and survey research showed me that each of us cares about the environment. Certainly, we do so in ways that are distinct and can be incompatible. And we do so in ways that make sense for each of us, given our personal experiences and the social context of our lives.
With climate change, we face what Bill McKibben has described as the first existential threat to humanity. It is not an effective use of our minds and hearts to make moral judgments of one another’s relationships to the environment. We need to first recognize the shared common ground beneath our feet.