On November 4, the US was fixated on rolling numbers as vote totals were reported for the presidential election. Ironically, that day also finalised the US leaving the Paris Agreement, a process started a year earlier under Donald Trump. This transition out was long-coming for someone who peddled in climate misinformation throughout his presidency and 2020 campaign rhetoric. Now, president Joe Biden has expressed a very different climate narrative.
After the election was called, Biden and vice president Kamala Harris released plans for their administration, including a commitment to rejoin the Paris Agreement. One minute we are in and the next minute we are out. Politics in the US has irrevocably changed how we view and how we talk about climate issues.
Trump vs. Biden
Climate change is often polarised by politics as if believing in climate change is a matter of party loyalty as opposed to what the science says. Consequently, conservative and liberal messaging around climate change differ from denial to advocacy, and many shades in between. The Yale Program on Climate Communication describes this continuum as the ‘6 Americas,’ where some people flat out deny climate change is an issue while others are incredibly alarmed at the potential consequences. In considering Trump and Biden’s positions on the environment and the way they talk about it, we can easily place them on opposite ends of this spectrum.
Trump’s presidency had nothing short of a tumultuous relationship with the environment. He has prioritised fossil fuels and the economy over environmental protection at nearly every turn in policy making and so did his language. Some of the earliest messages Trump sent as a political candidate about climate change were Tweets denouncing climate change as a scam invented by China and as a “hoax”. Which means falling into a standard line of climate denial argument that seeks to discredit science because of nefarious intent on the part of climate scientists.
More recently, Trump shed doubt on the consensus by arguing that climate scientists are undecided about climate change. At a meeting to discuss the California wildfires in September 2020, Trump said: “I don’t think science knows, actually”. Additionally, his response pointed to wishful thinking that the weather would simply become cooler naturally without intervention. These examples provide evidence that Trump’s discourse promotes scepticism and repeats climate myths, which may resonate with his supporters and negatively affect public opinion.
Transitioning to a new presidency may give the US a case of climate whiplash. In his plans, Biden includes progressive climate legislation such as the Green New Deal and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. In addition to the policy support, Biden uses direct language such as calling climate change “an existential threat” and the “number one issue facing humanity”. These messages do not put climate change on the periphery: they centre it as a core component of Biden’s political agenda. In an interview with Pod Save America, Biden framed mitigating climate change as a “moral obligation”, using religious and sacred language that associates climate change with values and virtues. In his victory speech, he argued that the US must actively engage science in the “battle to save our planet”. The mixing of sacred and war metaphors positions climate change as an enemy – to the country and to the whole Earth – that requires the same strength and united front we would muster against a military threat.
The language differences between the two are stark. For one, climate change is a trivial fairy tale, requiring us to ignore it until it eventually evaporates. For the other, climate change is the largest threat to life and the planet as we know it, requiring the marshalling of all of our resources in response. It is important to remember that the language of our politicians is not merely words, as they shape perceptions of policy options and communicate the priorities of the nation.
Strategies for climate conversations
With so much political turmoil around climate change, people may feel like they are helpless to make meaningful contributions and to shape climate conversations. Individuals, however, can make powerful statements about their priorities and values that issue bottom-up mandates for the policies they want to be enacted. While we often don’t have direct lines to political leadership, having conversations with others is a good place to start. In order to have those conversations, even about politically divisive topics such as climate change, here are some tips:
1. Engage in dialogues instead of giving lectures – no one wants to be talked down to.
If you start a conversation with the perspective that you will convince the other person to change their mind or that they are inferior to you, the conversation will go nowhere. It may also put the other person on the defensive, turning what might otherwise be a productive conversation into stonewalling and even aggression. Instead, view the interaction as a dialogue where both people can share information and are equals in the exchange.
2. Value the person, not the position – it is possible to disagree on a topic and still engage in a productive conversation.
This does not mean that we compromise on the truth of climate change, but that we care enough about the person we are talking with to value their experiences. When we ask our dialogue partner questions, we can get to the root of the disbelief. Are they uninformed or lacking information? Have they been exposed to misinformation? Is their identity threatened by the topic? Instead of dismissing their opinion as incorrect, we can choose to engage with the person and experiences behind the belief to find common ground.
3. Tell stories about common values – find connections to capture attention and interest.
Research about storytelling shows that it can be an effective tool for engaging people even on complex and polarised topics such as climate change. For example, stories can break down partisan barriers and encourage pro-environmental behaviours and attitudes. When telling stories, keep them localised and personalised to the conversation partner to engage them where they are. What do they care about and how does climate change impact them? From politics to our everyday interactions, language matters. How we communicate about climate change in our personal relationships and in our politics can help create productive headway into otherwise gridlocked topics. If we want to move forward on climate change, we have to muster every tool at our disposal, especially our words.