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How to talk with Trump about climate change – it’s about values and emotions, stupid

By Chris Shaw on January 20, 2017

This article was first published in the Huffington Post and written with input from Bernhard Poetter

The science of climate change, for anyone already interested in the subject, is scary stuff.

If you are anything like me, when you read about the records for global temperatures being broken year on year, or large ice sheets breaking away as the polar caps melt, you can’t help but feel an increased sense of urgency and a desire to act. So it is understandable that concerned citizens want to share this news far and wide, to galvanize their neighbours, friends and family into action.

Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t seem to work. The appeal to the numbers, to rationality and reason falls on deaf ears. This approach seems even less likely to connect with people at a time when expert knowledge has never been held in such low esteem. As George Lakoff spells out in this article, conservative politicians have long since learnt, the way to electoral success is through the heart and head, not the brain.

So what now? I decided to turn to my colleague and expert in climate change communications, George Marshall, for some answers. In particular, I wanted to know what George would say if he had the chance to sit down with Donald Trump for a tête-à-tête about climate change. Over to you George.

I’ve always been an optimist, it’s a helpful trait when you’ve been working on climate change for over a decade. So whilst I can understand the angst amongst climate campaigners maybe the election of Trump, following hard on the heels of the Brexit vote in the UK, is a trigger that will enable us to become better at connecting the wider public with the threat of climate change.

Here I lay out what an alternative chat with Trump might look like if we want to reach out and turn the scientific reality of climate change into a social reality.

If Donald Trump called us up (as if!) and asked “What is this thing about global warming? Why should I care?” what should we say?

The first thing to remember when speaking with Trump is that he does not make decisions in a straightforward and rational way by balancing up the arguments. It is a fundamental mistake to try and persuade him with pure data or expert opinion- after all, he believes that he is the biggest expert. His triggers are much more based on an emotional response.

Many of these emotional values derive from a Manichaean perspective of black and white, good guys and bad guys, winners and losers. Unfortunately, climate change is a diffused issue which works poorly with such simple dualities, but I cannot see that Trump is capable of accepting any of that complexity.

So I would present it as an external threat that will divide the world into heroes and villains and where countries – including US competitors – are fighting over leadership in the solutions. Given his right-wing nationalist perspective, I would not talk at all about climate change as a global threat or a social justice issue impacting other countries. I would talk about the threat to US security, productivity, agriculture, landscape, and cities.

The danger is that this would involve promoting self-interested extrinsic values which, research shows, undermines concern around shared problems like climate change. Of course, Trump is exceptionally extrinsically oriented, but I would still look for some more intrinsic levers: maybe around areas of excitement, curiosity, new opportunities and freedom.

However, I fear that the real key to understanding Trump is to regard him as having a narcissistic personality disorder, for which I think there is strong evidence. Advice on talking to such people requires that I would avoid conflict and contradiction. I would provide large amounts of praise and positive validation and present the rewards for action on climate change as fuel for his grandiosity – fame, respect, and universal love. And, above all, I would try to set it up so that he believed everything he did was his own idea all along!

How would we tell him that the US has to “decarbonize” its economy by 2050?

This is entirely the wrong wording – Trump has no interest in anything that moves backwards or downwards – whether it is “decarbonising”, reducing emissions, low carbon technologies. The language has to be upwards and bigger: more renewables, smarter technologies, stronger economy, high efficiency. Effective arguments relate to the economic and political opportunity for leadership in a global energy upgrade.

Even though he uses the phrase “make America great again,“ Trump is not invested in a nostalgic traditional worldview. Unlike many conservatives he likes change, and I think the real key lies in the excitement of large-scale ambitious energy technologies, like the Tesla Battery Gigafactory.

What should he tell a coal miner in West Virginia who lost his job to the Clean Power Plan?

I don’t think, in truth, that Trump cares at all about the coalminers, any more than cares about the treatment of staff in his own business. They were, I fear, a backdrop for his electoral ambitions.

But if he was to talk to them I hope he would begin by validating the contribution that their hard work has made to building a modern economy and out of respect for them, to do everything he could to ensure that the shift to new power technologies provides work opportunities for them. I think environmentalists, who constantly demonise fossil fuel production, should learn from Trump (who always pours his flattery on his target audiences) and consider offering respect and validation to workers in the fossil fuel industry as they make a global energy transition. Remember that for many communities, mining and fossil fuels have been at the heart of their lives, cultures and history forming a central aspect of their identity.

Our book Talking climate: from research to practice in public engagement provides a definitive summary of the latest thinking on public engagement with climate change.

By Dr Christopher Shaw

Chris was part of Climate Outreach’s research team from 2015 – 2023. In that role, he focused on ensuring climate communication practice is informed by a robust and up-to-date evidence base, combining new research with the existing literature to provide communicators with accessible resources to support their work. Chris’s work was driven by a belief that successful climate policies are ones that are shaped by the voices, concerns and aspirations of the people who live their lives outside of the policy and campaigning bubble. Chris completed his doctoral thesis as a mature student in 2011 at the University of Sussex, on the communication of climate risk, a theme he continues to publish on. 

In his previous lives Chris worked as a Geography teacher and then in marketing, always with the ultimate aim of learning how to engage people with climate change risks. Between completing his doctoral studies and starting work at Climate Outreach, Chris held research posts at the University of Sussex and the University of Oxford. Outside of office hours Chris can normally be found either smashing his tennis racket on the ground in frustration at yet another defeat, or wandering aimlessly on the South Downs and blaming inaccurate Ordnance Survey maps for being lost.

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