By Lynn Grinnell, PhD, LEED O+M

Is it possible to talk to a conservative about climate change?  Let one of the most famous conservatives in recent times give you some hints on a good approach.  Read a column from Charles Krauthammer, who is being lauded this week by conservatives on the 5th anniversary of his death.  Krauthammer was a tower of strength, having finished a medical degree despite a swimming accident rendering him a quadriplegic. After making some significant contributions to the field of psychiatry, he pivoted to political commentary (he also had a degree in economics and political science) and was one of the most influential writers and speakers on a wide range of topics for decades.

In 2008, Charles wrote a commentary on climate change titled, “Confessions of a Global Warming Skeptic” that will give you who are concerned with climate change some insight into the mind of people who don’t share your same concern.  He started the article with:

“I’m not a global-warming believer. I’m not a global-warming denier. I’m a global-warming agnostic who believes instinctively that it can’t be very good to pump lots of CO2 into the atmosphere but is equally convinced that those who presume to know exactly where that leads are talking through their hats.”climate change

The rest of the article gives us a good explanation of why IPCC and climate activist concerns will not move the needle for many skeptics. Instead, he says, “So what does the global-warming agnostic propose as an alternative? First, more research (read his article for specifics – BTW, you probably won’t agree with a lot of what he says, but it’s important to know what very respected influencers are saying) …  Second, reduce our carbon footprint in the interim by doing the doable, rather than the economically ruinous and socially destructive.”  He advocates using nuclear energy (and a number of climate activists agree).  I, personally, believe the recent breakthroughs in nuclear fusion (see my earlier blog, here) offer more promise and less environmental impact than any of the current technologies, which can have devastating impacts on wide swathes of the environment.

How does this help you? So, how does Charles Krauthammer’s view help to persuade the 40% of those who place climate change at the bottom of their list of priorities to consider making changes?

First, quote Charles when you are discussing this issue – he is a most respected source. A credible spokesperson can establish an emotional connection with your listeners (or readers), especially when they may be skeptical or have opposing views. In our current polarized climate (on climate – lol), there is a lot of skepticism arising from increasingly alarming predictions (which are challenged by other credible sources cited by skeptics).  It doesn’t help when some climate advocates are profiting from green investments (e.g., in solar power), calling into question their motivations. By using a credible spokesperson, your points gain credibility, thus increasing the chances of persuasion.  (By the way, you can also quote Newt Gingrich from his book, A Contract with the Earth.)

Earth and humansSecond, base your discussion on values: theirs, not yours.  My colleague and I did some focus group research that resulted in a conference presentation called, “Convincing the Unconvinced.”  I can confirm from that research and additional sources that conservatives love the environment as much as climate activists.  Many base that on religious values, i.e., a love for God’s creation and a mandate to care for it, but that gives you an in – you can make a pitch based on care for creation.

Third, give them suggestions for tailored, focused, doable actions that will make a difference.  The current trend to propose solutions that cost trillions for a miniscule impact are not convincing to the unconvinced.  I believe it is better to find common ground for policy, or better yet, bottom-up approaches, where businesses, buildings, households, and individuals make changes that will have an estimated 30-40% reduction in carbon emissions. Not perfect, but better than the pushback that will happen with pushy policies, which will achieve less.  If we truly want to have a rapid effect on climate change, we need to get the voluntary support from as many people as possible.

A Best Practice.  A great example of a solution that works with both of those ideas is what we are doing here in Tampa.  I am a member of the Care4Creation committee of the faith-based (and generally liberal) Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality (H.O.P.E.), which looks to pressure politicians to do the right thing on multiple fronts.  Unlike many activist organizations, ours develops doable projects based on research that politicians from both sides of the aisle might be willing to support.  Recently, our committee succeeded in encouraging politicians to increase funding to improve the resilience of disadvantaged communities using green infrastructure for at least five retention ponds.  What did we mean in that proposal?

  • The term resilience is often being used instead of climate change or sea level rise because it includes the immediate concerns for preventing damage from storms, fires, or other natural disasters as well as long-term impacts from climate change, which appeals to all sides.
  • Retention ponds are built to manage stormwater runoff from storms, which is important to everyone in Florida – think hurricanes! green infrastructure
  • Green infrastructure involves planting trees and native vegetation to help water soak into the ground faster and improve water quality.
  • Fairness. Green infrastructure has the added benefit of making ponds lovelier, which improves the quality of life in urban areas by providing spaces for recreational activities.  That appeals to another value besides love of nature.  According to Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, conservatives’ sense of fairness is as strong as any other of the six key values he uncovered: care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority (which I think is better termed as respect), and spirituality.  What does that mean?  It means that conservatives dislike the inequality between different parts of the community – e.g., inner city vs. suburbs – because it offends their sense of fairness.

There you have it.  Repeating your point of view more ardently will probably not work, but you can appeal to concerns about faith and fairness by offering practical ideas for reducing our environmental impact.  No one that I know wakes up in the morning saying, “How can I trash the environment?”  We need to treat people with respect like the valuable human beings they are.  I challenge you to try this the next time you are trying to convince the unconvinced.


  1. Krauthammer, C. (2008). Confessions of a Global Warming Skeptic. National Review.
  2. Gingrich, N. and Maple, T. (2007). A Contract with the Earth. Tantor Media Inc.
  3. Grinnell, L. and Mack, L. (2009). Convincing the unconvinced. Presented at the Campus and Community Sustainability Conference and Sustainable Florida Conference, Tampa, FL, Oct 8-9, 2009.
  4. Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Gildan Media LLC.