Conservative Americans Discover Climate Solutions in the Garden of Eden

Climate communicating will undoubtedly face new obstacles under the Trump administration, and the first couple of weeks have only been a taste of what is in store. On the morning of Trump's inauguration, information regarding climate change disappeared from the White House website. The following week, the White House added an energy plan that doubled down on fossil fuels as Trump reopened negotiations to advance both the Dakota and KeyStone XL Pipelines. All of which came after a series of troubling cabinet nominations for the EPA and Department of Energy and an immigration ban that will endanger thousands of climate refugees.

Like Sisyphus, people of faith who care about climate change feel caught in a cycle of triumphs and setbacks, never really advancing beyond the hill ahead. But I assure you, there is a way forward – we just need to find an alternative path (not alternative facts).

Those advancing jeopardous initiatives under the leadership of Trump are largely politicians who sway American conservative values, which means that we must alter our messaging strategy to address their specific priorities. But we’ll need to downplay the science to get there.

As Katharine Hayhoe shared in her latest episode of Global Weirding, Why Facts Aren't Enough, people who deny the realities of climate change may have been influenced by unfounded science and manipulated data, or they choose to ignore the factual data because they don’t like the proposed solutions. Ergo, "giving them more science won't help." In many cases, "arguing over data and facts can be counter-productive" considering that one’s willingness to accept climate science is often deeply rooted in one's political identity. Instead, Hayhoe suggests that we begin by finding common, faith-based values to connect on. But what happens when we try to connect strictly on religious affiliation?

As Hayhoe pointed out in the episode The Bible Doesn’t Talk About Climate Change, Right?, there are many Roman Catholics around the world that disagree about climate change, "and they share the same Pope!" Jay Michaelson, a prominent U.S. writer, and educator on law and religion, similarly explained that Trump’s appointees such as Scott Pruitt, despite holding deep Christian values, are unwilling to admit the existence of anthropogenic climate change. Pruitt and Hayhoe are both Protestant Christians, so how did they arrive at vastly different conclusions on climate solutions?

For Christians like Pruitt, it comes down to what Hayhoe calls being “politically Evangelical” (those who fear government intervention) – but there is a new way of addressing those often partisan ideologies without validating their claims or getting caught in a fight over data. Last month, University of Cologne researchers uncovered what is being called the "Garden of Eden" effect in climate communicating, but we’ll need to retrace our footsteps to understand it.

During the early 2000s, predictions of climate change catastrophes were used to galvanize people into action. Stories of impending tidal waves, earthquakes, and famine petrified people, creating the adverse effect of paralyzing rather than motivating them. Soon, however, our fear of the future was replaced with a dream for a better tomorrow as messaging began to connect our concern for future generations with our willingness to act on climate change. The values of preserving God’s creation for our children and grandchildren tend to resonate well with people of faith, but as Cologne researchers found, so might conservative nostalgia.

In Abrahamic traditions, there is a transgenerational pull to return to innocence — best exemplified in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. As it turns out, this "past-focus" has influenced the way conservative people of faith view their political dealings as well. One example is Donald Trump's campaign slogan to "Make America Great Again," a message that, while vague and unfounded, harkened to an American utopia. Though many have argued that this ideal past never existed, the slogan was effective in rallying conservatives to his cause.

This sentimental way of looking back (fictitious or not) has actually been used by generations of conservatives to envision a better future. In looking back, conservatives begin to feel as though the impossible is possible. Simply put, if we have been there before, we can find our way back.

By showing conservatives what the world once was, and how it has changed, we create a sense of urgency and hopefulness in seeking solutions, while speaking to their longing for a rosier past. Let's take for instance the juxtaposition of these two images of Lake Oroville, captured less than three years apart.


Matthew Baldwin, a post-doctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Cologne and author of the study, found that “the trick is to present a very positive past standard, and then draw attention to the less positive present.” Baldwin continued, “Our studies describe in words and pictures what the past used to be like, an almost Eden-like version of the planet, one with clean forests and little traffic and pollution."

Conservative or liberal, climate change remains an abstraction that is difficult to envision. Many Americans require tangible examples to understand that the climate is changing, which can easily be diverted by a good weather day or misinformation regarding a pause in rising global temperatures. In comparing the past to the present, we not only demonstrate the unquestionable changes that have occurred, but we motivate Americans to preserve our future in the process.

Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside.


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