Against Climate Change Tribalism -- Talk @ American Climate Leadership Summit

Matthew Nisbet's picture

As climate change advocates, we are often told to be more like our political opponents: more ruthless, more cunning, more aggressive, more willing to bend facts to our side, and more committed to the most audacious and ambitious policies, regardless of their flaws.

We are all too quick to rally around the banner of those voices that emphasize “us versus them,” “good versus bad,” and “winning versus losing.” We view those opposed to action on climate change as extreme but seldom apply the same label to those on our side.

Yet the more we become angry and the more we catastrophize about the future, the less likely we are to find common ground or even be able to treat our political opponents as human beings, I argued in a May 1 address to the American Climate Leadership Summit held in Washington, D.C.

There can be no progress on climate change, I urged, until we rebuild our civic capacity to discuss, debate, and disagree in ways that do not turn every aspect of climate politics into an identity-driven tribal war between good and evil.

We must harness our organizational resources and personal gifts to serve not as partisan persuaders but as partners in face-to-face dialogue with other Americans and decision-makers, embracing our common humanity.

The initial focus of a conversation about a contentious topic like climate change with a neighbor, community member, or elected official should be to simply recognize and affirm shared identities, ideals, and beliefs.

Reframing climate change in terms of public health or religious duty, for example, may help foster a more thoughtful conversation. But there are no magic messages capable of overcoming false beliefs or converting someone to your side.

But with trust and relationships established, further dialogue can focus on working together toward common goals related to energy decarbonization and societal resilience.

You can read the full text of my remarks in a story featured at Medium:

You can watch a video of the panel on public engagement that also included pollster Celinda Lake, Climate Central's Karen Florini, and Climateprogress' Joe Romm here:


About the Author: 

Matthew Nisbet is a Professor of Communication, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Environmental Communication. He writes about climate change, politics, and a more focused life at his blog, and in regular columns at ScientificAmerican.comIssues in Science and Technology magazine and American Scientist magazine.