Clean Energy Insights

How to get Americans on board with Biden’s bold climate goals

6 minute read

As featured in the Hill

Last Thursday and Friday, as we celebrated the 51st anniversary of Earth Day, President Joe Biden made some incredible advances in the fight against climate change.

He started by bringing together leaders of 40 countries around the world to discuss next steps on upping our collective climate strategies to meet our Paris Agreement goals. He then announced some very big goals for the United States — a 50 percent reduction of carbon emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. This of course builds on the $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan he’s laid out that calls for 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 and 80 percent emissions reductions by 2050.

Part of the impetus for holding the conference was to show the leaders of the world that after the former Trump administration’s backtracking on climate, that the U.S. is back at the table and means business.

However, while it’s crucial that Biden convince leaders of other countries of how important this is to him, those of us in the climate movement have a more difficult challenge ahead: Convincing conservatives in this country why this is important to them.

Biden’s commitments, laudable as they are, still face a daunting road ahead. While the official stance of the administration is that we’ll be able to meet these commitments with or without the help of Congress, not everyone is so confident.

While corporate influence on our political system has held back climate progress for decades, what history teaches us is that when a popular movement becomes popular enough, things change, from the suffrage movement, to the civil rights movement, to marriage equality.

And while we often hear about the partisan divide on climate from elected officials in Washington, a narrative perpetuated by the media, the data shows something quite different.

Yale University’s Center for Climate Change Communication has found in recent years that two-thirds of Americans report that climate change is important to them personally. A staggering 85 percent of Americans would like to see 100 percent clean energy from their utility.

In the hyper-polarized state of the country, how many issues do 85 percent of Americans agree on? I would venture to say not many. Thus, clean energy is actually one of the few issues that can help to heal the divide, by giving us something we all can get behind. By tying clean energy deployment to the increases in jobs, decreases in electricity bills and improved public health, the way the Biden administration is doing, while focusing on justice and equality of who receives those benefits, is an important first step.

The Biden administration has done a great job by marrying our clean energy goals with the job creation efforts and economic recovery strategy proposed in the infrastructure bill.

Leading climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe points out that one thing we can do to help change the partisan narrative is simply talking about climate change more. Two-thirds of Americans report that they never talk about climate change. But in our hyper-partisan world, how can we learn to start talking about a subject that’s historically viewed as taboo to discuss much like money, religion or politics?

I summarized a few pointers outlined by leading psychologists in my book “Climate Courage.” They include:

Connect to the emotional brain first: The first thing to do when discussing climate change is to connect with people at an emotional level around shared beliefs. This allows their emotional minds to engage and their rational minds to hear what you’re saying.

Stay positive: Focus your message on success stories that inspire. Try not to freak people out. Stay away from doom and gloom and how daunting the challenge is that lies ahead. Instead focus on what’s working.

Empower: Be solutions oriented. Give concrete examples of things that people can do that actually make a difference.

Focus on Community: Remind people that they’re not alone. We are stronger when we act together. Focus on the shared values and beliefs of the community they identify with.” 

A good example of the type of communications that will help bridge the divide happened during the 2020 World Series. After announcing it will only produce electric vehicles by 2035, GM released an ad featuring a reflective Lebron James describing how “real revolutionaries” are “the ones who change the game forever” by “seeing the world not as it is, but how it could be.” The ad also highlights the new electric Hummer coming out next summer that goes 0-60 MPH in 3 seconds, has 1,000 horsepower, 11,500 pound feet of torque, and is completely silent.

This ad was likely meant for the baseball fan who between innings is glancing at the tube, and amidst a sea of beer and fast-food commercials might perk up in their seat when Lebron James talks about one of the most rugged vehicles ever assembled on American soil, now fully electric. It might even catch this person by surprise. My guess is GM hopes that this is the kind of ad that people will remember and talk about after the game.

This is how we make climate change and clean energy and electric vehicles normal to talk about. By bringing them into the mainstream with an American car icon, and an American sports legend.

By the way, the GM factory in Detroit now making electric Hummers, and the new GM and LG factory in Lordstown, Ohio making the batteries for the Hummers, will create over 3,000 new jobs.

Seems like a conversation starter to me.

For those of us working in the climate justice movement, and everyone who cares about this issue, may we muster our climate courage, and continue speaking up about this and in a way that points to a positive future we can get behind, not just a scary one we want to avoid. Once the broad consensus around climate solutions is visible, it’ll be a lot harder for congress to stall, and it’ll be much easier to convince foreign leaders of our country’s commitment to helping lead the charge for swift, equitable, climate solutions, here and abroad.

Andreas Karelas is author of the book “Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community, Transform the Economy, and Bridge the Political Divide in America” published by Beacon Press. He is also the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization that helps fellow nonprofits across the country go solar. Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasKarelas

Previously Featured on The Hill

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