Matt from London/flickr
It is almost always politically smart for candidates to move in a moderate direction for a general election. The principal strategy of most campaigns, in fact, is to grab the center. But that fact obscures another reality: that often it is the extremes that exercise out-sized influence over political debates in Washington.
Gun control is a good example. Whether you favor or oppose new regulations for guns, it is clear that they are politically popular among the broad general public. Most Americans support a ban on assault weapons, limits on high capacity magazines and universal background checks. Yet the first two were instantly declared dead in Congress and the third has been unable, so far, to get past a procedural vote in the Senate. This demonstrates that a motivated, focused and loud minority can exercise power far beyond its numbers.
The debate over climate change is similar. More than seven out of ten Americans believe global warming is happening, and nearly sixty percent are concerned about it. Yet it is a politically difficult fight to pass climate change legislation. There are lots of reasons for this, but chief among them is the partisan division on the issue, which is primarily driven by an intense and a vocal minority. Look at the comments on any blog post about climate change (including, possibly, this one) and you’ll find people who feel certain that global warming is a dangerous hoax.
These “climate deniers” believe that the National Academy of Sciences and all of the leading scientific professional organizations are wrong about climate. They believe it sincerely and passionately, and there is little chance of convincing them otherwise. Indeed, if you believe in climate change, they hope to disabuse you of your delusion. This is the type of committed, vocal minority opinion that scares politicians.
So what should be the response from those who believe climate change is a real, pressing, and dangerous problem? There are three, and all of them are necessary.
1. We need to differentiate between those who are sure climate change is a hoax and those not yet convinced by the science. We should reach out to the latter group, find out their questions, learn what drives their skepticism and provide them with the information they need to fully consider the issue. Confusing these two groups is a great mistake – we’ll waste time arguing with those who are beyond the reach of argument, and we’ll risk yelling at people who might be open to learning more.
2. We need to give more Americans a reason to care about climate change. There is a significant chunk of people who understand climate change is happening, but don’t really care about it. We need to let them know what’s coming and how it will affect their daily lives.
3. Our political leaders need to know that those who want action on climate change feel as strongly as those who don’t. That means we must be just as vocal and passionate as our opponents. Politicians should know that we will remember their votes at election time. We should remind them, in a civil and respectful way, that this is the issue that will decide our votes, our contributions and our volunteer hours. And we should encourage our like-minded neighbors to do the same.
A vocal minority is a powerful thing, but not as powerful as a vocal majority.