Conservatives are sliding under the climate change tent. How do we keep them there?

Conservatives are sliding under the climate change tent. How do we keep them there?

Sixty-six percent of Americans (including half of self-reported Republicans) support an environmental presidential platform that explicitly acknowledges climate change.

Over the years, I have had some “lively” dinner conversations about politics and public policy with my family. Last year’s Saturday Night Live Thanksgiving Miracle skit particularly resonates. In recent years, as I have gotten older (and hopefully, wiser) I’ve put more effort into keeping the peace, particularly with my husband’s older brother, a staunch conservative who owns a cigar store. While I’ve never tried using Adele to distract, I generally try to steer the conversation away from hot-button issues.

But this past weekend, fresh from the BECC Conference (Behavior, Energy and Climate Change), and inspired by some good speakers and recent findings from our 2016 Energy Pulse study, I tried something new: I engaged him in a climate change discussion in his own language – the language of conservatives.

I asked him what he thought about the unprecedented heatwave in our state and recent hurricane patterns, and I asked his thoughts on what the Bible says about stewardship of the Earth. I also asked if he thought there was money to be made in renewable energy development and REC sales and what he thought of a tax swap that might reduce taxes on payroll, shifting the tax to carbon dioxide emissions as an alternative to subsidies and regulation.

I was inspired by a BECC panel presentation on “Shifting the Climate Change Conversation” with Paul Wright, Director of the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute; Sharon Dunwoody, Evjue-Bascom Professor, University of Wisconsin; and Bob Inglis, Executive Director of republicEn.

Inglis is a conservative Republican who represented Greenville-Spartanburg, South Carolina, from 1993-1998. In 2004, he was re-elected to Congress and served until losing re-election in the South Carolina Republican primary of 2010, after telling a radio host that he believed humans were contributing to climate change and promoting a revenue-neutral tax swap plan to address carbon emissions. (For which he was given the 2015 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award and landed features in the film Merchants of Doubt and in the Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously (episodes 3 and 4).)

Inglis said, “Conservatives shrink in science denial because we think we’re no good and don’t have a solution.” He advocates that conservatives actually have solutions that can solve the problem faster and cheaper than others. He thinks that we’ve just got to do a better job at engaging them and making them see that there are solutions that fit with exactly what they believe.

This aligns perfectly with what we’re seeing in our new, soon-to-be-released Energy Pulse data. As Suzanne Shelton noted in a recent post, consumer (and B2B) attitudes are aligning on climate change and environmental responsibility. We think it’s time to start leveraging environmental drivers in energy efficiency and renewable energy marketing. But is that a safe strategy with conservatives? For many, the answer is yes.

Sixty-four percent of Americans say it’s important to elect a president who acknowledges that climate change is real, and 66% support an environmental platform that explicitly acknowledges climate change. There is no income, age or education divide on platform preference, and what’s even more startling is that there is no red/blue state divide, and only half of self-identified Republican voters supported a climate-denial environmental platform.

For years, we’ve used messaging about the environment that sounded like it was written by Berkeley students in Birkenstocks. We’ve got to start using more inclusive language that acknowledges the concerns that most of us are feeling and encourages action in a way that doesn’t trigger denial or defensive mechanisms. We tested many new environmental messages in this year’s Energy Pulse and are digging deeply into what tested well with both with liberals and conservatives.

For those still wondering, “How did it go with the brother-in-law?” the answer is, “Surprisingly well.” We made some progress. While he did mention the power of “sun spots,” he didn’t completely reject that climate change is occurring, and he readily acknowledged the responsibility of Christians to care for the earth. I could tell that recent weather patterns had shaken his confidence. While not at all enthusiastic about the idea of a “carbon tax,” he seemed surprised and interested in a conversation about potential market-based solutions.

Bob Inglis is right. We need to shift the conversation so that conservatives aren’t put on the defensive and made to feel “less,” and we need to partner with them in designing market-based solutions built on sound economic theories. We can’t solve the climate change challenge with only one side of the aisle. It’s going to take bipartisan support and all Americans to do what needs to be done – quickly. We at Shelton Group think that can start with the right words.


Lee Ann Head

About Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann started Shelton Group's research department in 2000 and now oversees all custom and proprietary research. She directs a staff that designs quantitative and qualitative studies, and she oversees secondary analyses, digging deep to find the nuggets of information that pave the way for successful insights, strategies and creative. She regularly presents findings to clients and industry groups around the country, as well as in her posts on the Shelton Insights blog.

View all posts by Lee Ann Head →


  1. I could not help but comment, because of my respect for much of the work the Shelton Group does each year. As a conservative, I advocate building better homes that conserve energy with commonsense reasons. It is abundantly clear the “climate change” or the old “global warming” arguments for changing behavior, are not enough to change homebuyers or builders habits. “Carbon footprints” do not work either. Fewer than 2% of homes sold last year were truly high energy efficient homes. Solar panels are good only when when put on these (2%) homes, otherwise it is like putting “lipstick on a pig.”

    Substantive change will come with tangible benefits for builders and homebuyers. Only about 25% of Americans consider themselves “environmentalists” with many more wanting to be environmentally responsible. Then why aren’t 25% of homes purchased energy efficient as well? Even the most strident environmentalists are not purchasing energy efficient homes. Why is this? Leading with an argument to save mother earth will not quickly compel, substantial shifts in homebuilding. Whether we like it or not, solutions for making great changes in homebuilding must come from sound reasoning that appeal to all Americans. I will agree with you and your brother-in-law, climate change is occurring, it has been since the beginning of time. Getting your brother-in-law, (and a multitude of other Americans), to change their purchasing behavior, takes pragmatic and tangible benefits. Leading with climate change and global warming has proven not to work, even with environmentalists.

  2. It is interesting that we can’t seem to stop talking about the climate change, environmental and cost savings benefits, even when we know it doesn’t motivate most people to take action today. There are so many other compelling and personal reasons that consistently motivate people to choose high performance homes (when they are properly communicated) but we always want to engage the “rational / logical” mind. Its as if we only want them to buy it for the “right” reasons. I am a true believer of the Shelton Groups findings about explaining high performance in a more helpful way. I have a personal example: One of my most fiscally conservative peers (a chartered account), carefully considered his $4000 per year heating bills, his 216 HERs score on his 1910 home and all the energy efficiency data I could present him and decided to do absolutely nothing. Things only changed when I did an air tightness test on his house and he noticed a series of very large holes throughout the house that he immediately recognized as potential mice entry points. That motivated him immediately to do $4000 worth of air sealing.

    • Gordon, I agree with you in principle. I was talking about NEW, not EXISTING. With new construction done properly, there are many benefits other than “climate change”. In new construction MONEY is a big factor. But the investment in energy efficiency, not only pays for itself, it makes the homeowner money. (Studied this for 2 years and have actual numbers calculated.) So I believe money is a factor, (among other benefits), in homebuyers decision making. I do agree with you completely on the “climate change motivation” or lack thereof.

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