Twelve takeaways: How to talk to Trump voters about the environment

Midwesterners who supported Donald Trump for president may be open to policies that would “improve environmental conditions while also addressing jobs and the economy, clean water and air, and renewable energy,” even if they are not highly engaged in those issues or convinced that climate change is a global emergency.

Extreme local weather events or threats to area drinking water are good conversation starters, with potential to tap into “pent-up goodwill” rather than reinforcing the “resistance” such voters may feel when confronted by alarming rhetoric.

Those were among the notable findings from twelve focus groups Selzer & Company conducted recently in Michigan, Illinois, and Iowa.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center commissioned the focus groups, seeking insight on effective ways to advance the non-profit’s mission to “improve environmental quality and protect our natural resources” in nine Midwestern states. (Disclosure: I serve on the Environmental Law & Policy Center’s Iowa advisory council, and in that volunteer role, I observed two of the West Des Moines sessions. I was not involved in planning the project, drafting the questions, or writing the report.)

Anyone interested in broadening support for renewable energy or climate action should read the full report (downloadable pdf). You may have heard that J. Ann Selzer sets the “gold standard” for Iowa polling. She’s a platinum-level focus group facilitator.

A few notes on methodology:

  • The participants were not a representative sample of Trump voters. Opinion polls (including Selzer’s most recent survey of Iowa Republicans for the Des Moines Register, CNN, and Mediacom) indicate that a majority who backed the president in 2016 still support him. Selzer & Co drew these participants from a more persuadable group, who said during the screening survey “they had voted for President Trump in 2016 and that they were not certain to vote to re-elect the president in 2020.” The participants were also all under age 65. About a quarter of Iowans who cast ballots in the last presidential election were senior citizens.
  • In addition, Selzer recruited “people without extreme views in accepting or rejecting policies designed to address climate change—they described themselves as a 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 on a one to ten scale, where ten means climate change is real, humans contribute, and it is a threat, and one means it is a hoax and not real. By eliminating individuals on the extreme ends of the scale, it ensured we had people at the table who would wrestle with the issue, not combatively defend an unwavering stance.”
  • The focus groups were segregated by gender (six involved only women, six only men). Organizing the sessions that way “helps set a mood for all to be equally engaged.”
  • The report summarizes top strategies on pages 3 through 5, followed by a narrative section (pages 6-19) and more detailed advice about communicating with Trump voters (pages 20-24). These findings struck me as most enlightening.

    1. Protecting water quality has the greatest potential to become a consensus goal.

    “Asked to choose the most important environmental issues from a participant-created list, fully 64 of 107 participants selected clean water, far more than any other issue.” Many of the Iowans recalled the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against drainage districts upstream, and “they recognize that just because people stopped talking about it, it does not mean the problem has been solved.”

    On the exit questionnaires filled out after the two-hour sessions, 95 out of 107 participants rated “ensuring clean water” as either very important or the single most important environmental issue.

  • Protecting the environment came in second with 92.
  • Job creation (87) ranked third.
  • Developing wind and solar energy was lower at 61.
  • Just 45 of the 107 said climate change is very important or the single most important issue for them.
  • 77 out of the 107 say they are inclined to think climate change is happening and caused by human behavior, though they divide between those who think something could be done (40.5) and those who think steps should be taken (36.5).
  • While environmentalists accept the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, voters who don’t already agree with them are more likely to see addressing water pollution as imperative.

    2. Persuadable Trump voters feel disempowered but are open to the idea that individuals can make a difference.

    “The desire for change fueled the vote for Trump; it remains a powerful force.” However, those who took part in the focus groups

    express cynicism that politicians care about anything other than getting elected and re-elected. They are cynical that corporations care about anything other than boosting their bottom lines. They are cynical that anything can happen that would create real change. […]

    Clean water, air, and soil are highly valued. However, it is hard for participants to feel they have power to do much about it. They have little faith politicians are capable of doing or willing to do the work they see needs to be done.

    On the other hand, “What participants latch onto about supporting clean energy is this is something they can do in their own homes.” They can conserve electricity, invest in efficiency products, or even install solar panels. “Because investing in solar energy is something they could—at least in theory—do at an individual level, they can more easily buy the case for this kind of investment by cities, states, and the nation.”

    3. Environmental issues are not salient to these voters.

    Asked for a main reason they voted for President Trump, not one participant in any of the 12 groups mentioned liking his stance on environmental issues. […]

    Also telling was the absence of environmental issues when asked about accomplishments of the administration. There were many comments about the tax law, Supreme Court judges, North Korea, the economy, the stock market, tariffs, and religious freedom.

    4. While generally supportive of renewable energy, these voters may not be well-informed about it.

    Participants reacted favorably to data on the economic impact of moving away from fossil fuels: “Shown charts of the number of jobs in the clean energy supply chain, many respond with disbelief.”

    But they may suspect renewables have downsides as well.

    In almost every group, there was some mention of wind turbine noise and its negative impact on humans. “Wind causes noise pollution from the vibration.” “What do windmills do to the jet stream?” Apocryphal or not, this concern is out there, along with a concern that the turbines might not last forever and so could become their own environmental problem down the road.

    Progressives ridiculed Trump for speculating that wind turbines may cause cancer, but not everyone finds it absurd to wonder whether wind farms harm people’s health.

    5. Nuclear power now appears irrelevant to the clean energy conversation.

    Fighting a bad nuclear power bill occupied a lot of the Iowa environmental community’s resources in 2011 and 2012. MidAmerican Energy later abandoned that nuclear project. (The utility company spent heavily this year promoting a bill that would crush small-scale solar development.)

    Iowa advocates probably don’t need to worry anymore about refuting arguments for nuclear power. Most of Selzer’s focus group participants

    do not see nuclear as a viable path forward, citing Fukushima and worry about accidents. […] For many, the idea of nuclear energy as “clean” was laughable. When messages were tested, the one mentioning nuclear energy received, by far, the most negative reactions.

    6. Advocates may not need to win the climate change argument.

    Activists can get traction in Democratic circles by calling for bold steps to combat climate change. But other arguments will likely be more persuasive among a broader electorate.

    Focus groups Selzer conducted for ELPC a few years ago indicated that Republican-leaning voters look more favorably on renewable energy policies when framed in economic terms, rather than as a response to climate change. The latest research supported that conclusion.

    There is resistance to data showing evidence of climate change, even as there is pride in what their states are accomplishing with renewable energy. In fact, seeing the strides made in solar and wind production proves energizing for many. But some still push back.

    Participants were asked to rate more than a dozen messages about environmental issues. This one received the highest overall rating: “Taking action now is a win regardless. Even if climate change isn’t as bad as we expect, building a green energy economy will only make us more resilient and independent as well as improve our air and water quality.”

    Instead of arguing about whether humans contribute to climate change, we can find common ground in “building a green energy economy.”

    Other relatively successful messages referenced clean water in lakes or rivers close to home, energy efficiency, renewable energy, or making big polluters pay. “These messages tap logic, emotion, and a wish for personal engagement” while not inviting “political resistance.” On a related note,

    7. Calls for united global action will fall flat.

    Focus group discussions revealed “little faith the nations of the world could come together and take sufficient action to have a noticeable effect. Many, if not most, are not bothered by the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. […] They believe the U.S. put itself in a position to be economically punished by what they see as excessive regulation while the developing nations were subject to lower standards and targets […].”

    Of the messages rated, the second least successful (after the one about nuclear power) suggested “that the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement amounted to it turning its back on the world.”

    People were more moved by evidence of how climate change has harmed their own communities.

    In one group, a woman talked about having pine trees in her back yard, and that her father told her they would die because of a particular bug. That species of bug cannot survive cold, but warmer weather means more bugs are surviving. Her trees are gone. This is just one example of things people could note in their own lives if they had knowledge of the connection to climate. For most, climate is an abstract—and therefore debatable—concept.

    Selzer also heard

    participants comment that there are long winters and summers, but very short springs and falls. Looking at a chart showing the number of heating and cooling degree days for over 100 years, one participant says, “This is a huge gap. We have no spring and fall anymore.” They note the storms and floods that were supposed to happen every 100 years, but they observe these happening multiple times in a decade.

    8. Don’t assume people with different political orientations understand “climate change” the same way.

    During some focus groups, people used the phrases “global warming” and “climate change” interchangeably.

    For some, global warming is disputed in the harsh cold, heavy snows, and bomb cyclones of recent winters. So, “global warming” is something of a joke. “Where’s global warming when you need it?” Some used “climate change” to defend against the idea of a human contribution. “The climate is always changing. It always has.” Some are just turned off by any of the language: “‘Climate change’ has been politically weaponized.” “There are too many climate alarmists.” “All this does is enrich the fearmongers.”

    Key finding. When talking to a politically diverse audience, it is unwise to presume all will share the same meaning for phrases commonly used among environmental activists. One of the most powerful weapons in social activism is to disarm the other side’s labels. […] climate-deniers use “climate change” to signal to their base that this is nothing to worry about—the climate is always changing. It does not signal to them that humans contribute to it or that anything can be done about it. The phrase has a very different meaning inside the environmental community, so beware.

    Another stumbling block in talking about climate change:

    Participants struggle to understand causation. “We understand what is happening, but we do not understand why.” This becomes a stopping point for many. […]

    In this context, some find the state summary of the impact of climate change unfathomable. “These statistics are unbelievable.” “Fifty years is not persuasive. Who knows what will be in 50 years?” “It is hard to feel this is an immediate threat.”

    Some participants expressed the view that the current warming trend “will self-correct,” just as the earth’s climate has changed in the past.

    9. Experts may be a trusted source of information.

    During the sessions, participants were asked to rate various individuals or entities “on a 1-10 scale of trustworthiness as sources of information on environmental issues.” The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had the highest mean score (7.5), followed by scientists from state universities or (in Iowa) Drake University.

    For a number of years, Iowa academics have issued an annual statement highlighting some detrimental impact from climate change. However,

    a high degree of cynicism leaves some unimpressed with “crazy stats,” even when they come from sources participants say they would trust. Creative approaches to disseminating data through unusual channels may need to become part of every environmental organization’s communication plan, if the goal is to have more acceptance of climate change as grounded in fact.

    Climate deniers like to pit environmentalists against farmers (a recent example was the right-wing noise machine’s false claim that supporters of the Green New Deal want to ban cows.) The focus group participants didn’t have a negative impression of local non-profits working in this sphere, though: “Midwest-based environmental organizations and Midwest-based clean energy advocacy organizations both score above the mid-point (6.52 and 6.23, respectively).”

    Farmers and the Farm Bureau had slightly higher composite ratings (6.74 and 6.34), suggesting that like-minded farmers could be effective messengers with Trump voters.

    10. These voters need to be convinced that renewable energy is not too costly.

    Throughout these groups, there was much talk of money. When participants looked at the graphs showing the declining costs of a megawatt of solar energy, they often asked about whether subsidies are factored in—that is, how much is it really costing us taxpayers to increase solar energy? “Will it be profitable?” When they read descriptions of large-scale solar projects waiting to go online, they think about costs. They are very sensitive to government spending.

    For that reason,

    There is particular ground to be gained in playing up declining costs of solar technology and advances in getting projects up and running. Many have what appear to be outdated ideas of what solar costs. If the data realistically show it is now less expensive than coal, that can be a key point to leverage. These participants seemed to want to be done with coal, but it was one of President Trump’s campaign promises— to get the coal miners working again. If it could be shown that it is simply bad economics, that would likely sit well with these voters.

    11. Advocates should emphasize that “doing nothing costs a lot.”

    Selzer found,

    These voters are sensitive to what things cost. They can forgive cuts to the EPA budget. They can question how much a megawatt of solar energy really costs if subsidies are factored in. They complain about regulations that add costs. They are only occasionally cognizant of how climate change is costing them now. […]

    Making the case that doing nothing is costing us—as a nation, as a species, but also as individuals—will likely resonate. Participants made a few references to increased costs they are having to pay for because of extreme weather events. One person says her property now floods twice a year. Another mentions that even though she has never had a claim, her homeowner’s insurance goes up and up. It is because insurance claims are becoming more expensive, so the insured pool pays for it all.

    Many fear big government programs to combat climate change because it sounds enormously expensive. But what is it costing individual taxpayers to do nothing? Better, what has it already cost taxpayers? “The average Joe cares about his bank account, not about the polar ice caps.”

    Key finding. There seems to be a common attitude that doing nothing costs nothing. Maybe the data already exist that would demonstrate how much it has already cost the average Joe in rising prices for food, energy, homeowner’s insurance, and so on. This list is likely lengthy and potentially impressive.

    12. Preaching and vote-shaming are not helpful.

    “Be respectful that the starting position for these voters is not welcoming, so lead with questions, not lectures,” Selzer advised. “Use data in a way that demonstrates rather than preaches. Present data without presumptions.”

    Among Trump voters who are no longer sold on the president, “Many are weary of politics generally and defending their vote specifically.” Selzer noticed visible relief when participants

    learned they had been selected for the group because they were all Trump voters. A few talked about problems they had talking to friends, relatives, and coworkers about politics. “I’m embarrassed to admit I may not vote for [President Trump] next time. It didn’t work out.” They appear battle-fatigued. “There’s been terrible name-calling where I work.”

    Analyzing the participants’ resistance when confronted with statistics about climate change, Selzer speculated,

    They only have so much energy for their jobs, for their families, for the pressing business of now. “People have trouble saving for retirement; they can’t think about 30 years from now.” Getting their attention on environmental issues is job one. In doing so, communications must be respectful of that reality and meet this population where they live. They are sophisticated in ways of discounting sources and data that lead to conclusions they think they do not like. In addition, they are sensitive to approaches that carry an undercurrent of belittling them for their political choices.

    For activists who deeply loathe this president and the damage he has done, it can be hard not to criticize those who helped bring about these dark days. But the reality is Trump received nearly 150,000 more votes in Iowa than Hillary Clinton did. Some of those voters are open to steps that would improve water quality or expand renewable energy. To go beyond preaching to the choir, we need to find respectful ways of communicating with people who may share some of our goals, even if they are not aligned with us politically.

    Top image: Photo by Ted Taber (“TeddytheTank”) of Des Moines River flooding on June 13, 2008, via Wikimedia Commons. Here is a similar view when the river is not at flood stage.

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