Getting Conservatives to March Against Global Warming

People's Climate March on Sept. 21 in New York Photograph by Kike Calvo via AP Photo

The fight to prevent disastrous climate change won’t succeed until there’s a conservative equivalent of the People’s Climate March, which drew over 300,000 people to the streets of New York City on Sunday.

George Marshall, the co-founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network and an expert on climate-change communications, argues that conservatives don’t feel welcome among mainstream environmentalists. “The movement’s increasingly becoming anti-capitalist, very strong on government intervention,” he said in an interview today during a visit to Bloomberg’s world headquarters.

Marshall, who has advised the British and Welsh governments, is the author of a new book that explores why many people—including conservatives—reject or ignore warnings that the planet is heating up because of humanity’s emissions of greenhouse gases. It’s called Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.

He joined Sunday’s march and talked to several people who turned out to be conservatives, including some ranchers from Nebraska and members of conservative faith groups. “They weren’t shouting that they were conservatives,” he said. “They weren’t marching under a banner of ‘Tea Partiers Against Climate Change.’ But they were happy to talk to me.”

“We have an urgent, urgent need to construct narratives that are conveyed by conservatives in their own language and values,” Marshall said. “We need conservatives who care about climate change to take very strong ownership and say this is not an issue that belongs to anyone.”

In his experience, Marshall said, conservatives who worry about climate change view it as “a huge threat to freedom and property.” Environmental catastrophes resulting from unchecked overheating of the planet could destabilize societies in the long run, possibly leading to “extremely authoritarian” responses that nobody—conservative or liberal—would want.

Don’t Even Think About It cites a few conservatives who are struggling to craft anti-climate-change messages. One is Bob Inglis, the former Republican congressman from South Carolina who says he lost his reelection bid in 2010 because of his position on climate change. He favors a carbon tax, and despite his election defeat, Inglis told Marshall that he’s hopeful: “If you name the baby, you win it, and if you get the words around climate change right, you win the issue.”

Marshall also cites Rob Sisson, the president of ConservAmerica, who argues that climate change is “the greatest single infringement on liberty after abortion” and that American babies are “poisoned while still in their mothers’ wombs every year by toxins released from burning fossil fuels.”

Marshall doesn’t propose that liberals and conservatives join forces against global warming. That, he said in the interview, would never work. What could work? A conservative movement founded on conservative values—and marching to its own drummer.