The only way to reach conservatives is through the power to enable people to feel safe and cared for. When people feel safe, they will feel more ready to launch into a national transformation.

…the power to create institutions, ideologies, narratives, and norms that make people feel safe and cared for. When people feel safe, they will feel more ready to launch into a national transformation. And they don’t feel safe in the precarious conditions that American capitalism imposes on them, when they are one lost job or health problem away from disaster.

Excerpt from David Roberts, April 27, 2019

Most people assume that Republicans will eventually have to come around on climate change, if only for electoral reasons. Young people are turning against them: recent national poll of 18- to 29-year-olds found that “45 percent of young Americans — including 50 percent of those likely to vote — agreed climate change is ‘a crisis and demands urgent action’.”

And I suppose that on some time horizon, that is true. Climate change certainly isn’t going away and it’s a much higher-stakes issue for young people.

But I would add a note of caution to this kind of triumphalism.

A great deal of research has gone into examining the deeper differences between liberals and conservatives, the differences that stretch beyond ideology into temperament, psychology, and neurology. One reason those differences are salient at the moment is that Americans have been sorting not only by race, income, and ideology, but even by personality.

The US polity has divided into geographic camps, people who live around and associate with people like themselves, so distanced from the other camps that dialogue becomes difficult. (Fascinatingly, as Will Wilkinson at the Niskanen Center has written, the core dividing line seems to be population density. As you move out from center cities and population grows more sparse, at a certain level of density, an area flips from blue to red. This holds true across regions of the country. Wild.)

the density crossover
The crossover point in population density — roughly 800 people per square mile — where red flips to blue.  Dave Troy

One difference that comes up again and again, which social scientists have come to see as the core distinction between liberal and conservative temperaments, has to do with what psychologists call “openness to experience” (one of the “big five” personality traits). To the extent someone scores highly on this trait, they are more likely to be liberal.

This can be simplified even further, since that trait is highly correlated with sensitivity to fear. The more sensitive someone is to negative or threatening stimuli — even, experiments have found, negative stimuli flashed by too fast for the conscious mind to register — the more likely that person is to prize order, tidiness, predictability, and routine. In other words, the more sensitive someone is to fear, the less open they are to new experiences, the more they dislike change, and the more likely they are to be a conservative. (Ezra Klein rounds up some of the growing evidence for this thesis in this post.)

There’s a reason Obama won on hope and change while Trump won on going back. There’s a reason America’s rapid demographic changes are celebrated on the left and viewed with horror on the right.

The New America report takes note of this research and these differences in moral values, citing moral foundations theory, made famous by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. It cites a study out of Cornell that concludes that while liberal climate hawks are animated by compassion and fairness, “the moral foundation of purity (sanctity/degradation) [is] a potentially useful frame for conservatives.”

It also cites a study out of the University of Cologne that found that “conservatives are more responsive to climate messages rooted in the past, while liberals were more responsive to forward-looking climate change messages.”

This is more or less what you’d expect: Those who fear change, prize order, and pine for an imagined past without all the troubling present-day changes — i.e., conservatives — will be more open to messages emphasizing the maintenance of purity and glories of the past.

The New America researchers conclude, as many climate advocates have over the years: Well, okay, climate hawks need to craft climate messages that appeal to those values.

But hold on. Maybe the facts of climate change can’t be squeezed into just any values frame we like. Maybe global warming is not indefinitely malleable. Maybe it has a certain intrinsic character.

The tragic but inescapable fact at the core of climate change is that we are in an era of loss. The stable weather patterns, fertile soil, and biodiversity enjoyed by our ancestors — the biophysical status quo — is going away, whether we like it or not. It’s too late to save it.

The period ahead for our species is one of rapid change. There will be rapid changes in weather, agriculture, settlement patterns, migration, and conflict due to global warming. There will also, one hopes, be rapid changes in the way humans structure and power their civilizations, shifting to a model that does not produce greenhouse gases. If those latter changes don’t take place, the former changes will be even more rapid, terrible, and endless.

That pure, mythic past conservatives prize? It is gone, receding ever further in the rearview mirror. We already made that decision with our inaction.

Photo of a healthy and unhealthy fire coral
Bleached coral from climate change.
 The Ocean Agency/XL Catlin Seaview Survey/Richard Vevers

There are two ways to communicate about this to conservatives.

You can be honest, which is to say, you can tell them that everything they know is going to change in coming years and the best we can do is try to stick together and minimize the damage. You can tell them to embrace change, to work with other countries to try to preserve what is best even as much else falls away. But that is exactly, precisely what they do not want to hear.

Alternatively, you can lie to them. You can tell them the changes are temporary and reversible. If they can just beat the nefarious liberals, immigrants can be sent home, coal jobs will come back, the oil and gas spigot can stay open, hamburgers will be served for every meal, store clerks will say “Merry Christmas,” and we can keep ourselves safe by building walls. That is very much what they want to hear.

What you can’t do is promise them that aggressive climate policy will preserve a pure environment or restore a simpler past. It just won’t. It’s a lie, and not a very convincing one, certainly not one that will hold up against a Fox onslaught. Climate change means change. No amount of framing or messaging can get around that.

The Green New Deal is an attempt to grapple with the issue honestly. It says, “We’re going to go through a huge, disruptive transition, but we’re going to make sure you have a job and health care through it.” One of the reasons the right and center left have recoiled from the GND is precisely that: It takes the scale of change seriously. The powers that be don’t want to hear that.

That resistance to change, that status quo bias? It’s one of the strongest forces in human nature, it’s concentrated on the right, and it’s not going anywhere.

So that’s the long term.

The populace needs to be made less conservative

This post has been a whole lot of pessimism, so let me end by at least gesturing in a hopeful direction.

The tendency of liberal technocrats and Democrats generally is to “play it as it lays” — to study the temperament and opinions of the public and react to them, accommodate them, appeal to them. As I said earlier, the instinct on the right is to claim them and shape them.  Climate hawks, and the left generally, need to get a little more of that latter spirit.

We know that personality traits can be pretty deeply embedded by early childhood, but we also know that which traits and dispositions are brought to the fore, individually and collectively, depends on circumstances. Crudely speaking, when people feel safe and cared for, they will be more open to extending the circle of care (that is, more liberal). When they feel anxious or threatened, they will be more inclined to draw the circle of care inward, i.e., to become more conservative.

Right-wing media is a machine for scaring older white people — i.e., for making them more conservative. A whole generation of young people has lost parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles to the Fox machine. It has dragged the political center to the right and slowed progressive reforms (like universal health care) that have been in place in other developed democracies for years. It will fight climate progress to its last breath.


If climate hawks want the American people to take a more open, proactive, positive-sum attitude toward the inevitable changes that lie ahead, they need to think not just about how to appeal to public sentiment as it exists, but how to change it — how to make people more open to change; how to make them more liberal.

It won’t be done through messaging, no matter how clever.

It can only be done through power — the power to create institutions, ideologies, narratives, and norms that make people feel safe and cared for. When people feel safe, they will feel more ready to launch into a national transformation. And they don’t feel safe in the precarious conditions that American capitalism imposes on them, when they are one lost job or health problem away from disaster.

Climate hawks will never find adequate solutions if they simply take the grim status quo as a given. They must change America’s temperament; they must make it more liberal.

Even if it eventually finds some assistance from within the GOP, the drive to address climate change is ultimately a liberal project: It’s about drawing together in cosmopolitan global unity as a species, thinking in long-term, non-zero-sum terms, sacrificing for and helping one another, and having the confidence and curiosity to embrace change, to experiment and learn and adapt on the fly.

Those are all features of the climate project that draw on liberal personality traits. If climate hawks ever want to change the maddening, gridlocked political status quo in the US, they need to start thinking about how to bring those traits to the surface.