If you’re like most Americans, you probably spend most Thanksgivings with family, crowded around a dinner table with turkey, potatoes, and pie. If you’re like the author of this article, you probably spend a portion of that dinner talking about the politics of climate change with your right-wing uncle, Richard.
Richard knows climate change is real. But he also thinks carbon emissions represent human prosperity, and he hates the idea of giving government money to solar panel makers or wind farms. Most of all, he despises the Environmental Protection Agency, which he thinks is the ultimate symbol of big government imposing unrealistic regulations that will financially cripple the industries they affect.
Contrary to what you may believe, you can achieve a productive conversation on this topic this Thanksgiving without ruining the entire holiday. Here’s how to talk to Richard — or your family’s version of him — about the benefits of climate change action, and why the principles can actually align with his world view.
Keep your emotional arguments in check
Uncle Richard is combative. He feeds, not just off green beans and cheesecake, but off toying with your raw, liberal empathy. So when it comes to discussing the reasons for climate change solutions at the dinner table, keep your feelings out of the equation. Don’t go into the details of ailing Native American communities whose sovereign land is disappearing under the sea, or the plight of children’s developing lungs in a high-carbon future.
Those facts won’t budge Richard, and honestly, your family probably does not want to hear about it at the moment. It’s depressing. So instead, keep it light, hypothetical, and ideological. Appeal to ideas that you know Richard enjoys. That way, you avoid resenting Richard for acting like he doesn’t care about the little people, and Richard gets to talk about stuff that he likes. Present climate action as economical and patriotic, not ‘good for the planet’
Uncle Richard does care about the environment, but he hates your liberal rhetoric about “saving the planet.” He’d rather hear why climate change solutions are good for the economy (This is quantifiable — conservatives are more likely to buy energy-efficient lightbulbs if they’re advertised as cost-saving, but not if they’re advertised as “good for the climate”).
The first part of this is just messaging. Irina Feygina, a social psychologist at New York University, explained how to best to that in a recent interview with New York Magazine:
“Instead of saying, ‘Let’s deal with climate change, let’s be pro-environmental, let’s protect the oceans,’ what you need to do is come in and say, ‘If we want to preserve our system, if we want to be patriotic, if we want our children to have the life that we have, then we have to take these actions that allow us to maintain those things that we care about,” she said.
The other part is presenting basic facts on why climate action won’t hurt the economy. The EPA’s regulations on carbon from coal plants — likely to be his number one beef — are designed to be market friendly, giving states the ability to form whatever carbon-reduction system works for them. Two of those options are either a state-level cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax, policies that some conservatives strongly support. And limits on carbon will provide more incentives and competition from renewable electricity, energy efficiency, and new technological implementation — all of which will create new jobs to offset jobs lost in traditional coal power.
If he goes off on a tangent about why there should be no new taxes, tell him that the majority of carbon tax proposals are revenue neutral, meaning they replace other taxes like income or sales. And if he rags on cap-and-trade systems, remind him that that’s a free-market policy previously championed by Republicans, because the market determines the amount of carbon emitted, and then sets the price. And tell him that nearly 30 of the biggest companies in America, including some oil companies, have already factored a carbon price into their future financial planning, and none are predicting doom.
Remind him that carbon is actually harmful
Uncle Richard is not an entirely unreasonable man. He knows science is a real thing. (Note: If your right-wing uncle doesn’t think climate change is real, you’re in the wrong place. Learn how to talk to him about the reality of climate science here).
So when he says that carbon emissions represent economic prosperity, remind him of a couple climate science basics. Of course, fossil fuels can provide economic development, which improves quality of life — but it’s not the carbon itself that is directly causing life to be better. The carbon, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is potentially “dangerous,” and the dangerous effects “irreversible” if we don’t do anything to stop emitting so much carbon.
Remind Uncle Richard that right now, there is more carbon in the atmosphere than there has ever been in recorded history — possibly more than any time in the last 25 million years, according to NASA. Remind him that that carbon drives extreme heat, sea level rise, extreme droughts, wildfires, and agricultural instability. Remind him that adaptation efforts can only do so much. If he accepts that climate change is real, he can’t successfully argue with this.
As a bonus, you can mention that cutting emissions can actually improve quality of life, because by limiting carbon, you’re by extension limiting other harmful air pollutants too. Peer-reviewed research suggests cutting greenhouse gases could prevent up to 3 million premature deaths annually by the year 2100.
Appeal to his love of property rights and homeland security
If Uncle Richard loves only loves two things, they are property rights and homeland security. And there’s nothing he loves more than talking about these two things at the dinner table, surrounded by friends and family.
There is a conservative argument that if you value the protection of property rights, then you must act on climate change. It comes from Case Western Reserve University School of Law professor Jonathan H. Adler, and it is complicated. But you can make it easily: If a company is doing emitting lots of carbon, which we know causes sea level rise, then that company is violating the rights of the homeowners whose properties are affected by flooding. If we don’t make sure companies limit their carbon emissions, then we’re essentially allowing them to violate those rights.
In terms of Homeland Security, tell him that if he opposes climate change action, then he’s directly at odds with the Department of Homeland Security. The agency’s Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap calls climate change a “significant threat to national security.” That’s because its effects — extreme weather, sea level rise, and so forth — increase the risk of social and political destabilization, international conflict, and mass migrations.
Appeal to these interests, and you just might win Uncle Richard’s right-leaning heart — at least when it comes to climate change action. For Obamacare, well, that’s another conversation entirely.