In the month of May, CaSP had the honor of a welcoming to campus Howard Learner, the President and Executive Director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC).Howard gave an informative and enjoyable seminar on the current state of environmental policy. The talk touched on a number of subjects including the current state of electricity and the energy industry, as well as the EPA and the current administrator’s assault on science and the environment. It was interesting to learn that, because of the advances in technology which use less energy like LED light bulbs and efficient appliances, energy companies in some areas of the country are selling less electricity even though they are gaining customers. These advances are an important step to reducing our carbon footprint and fighting climate change.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration has made rollbacks of environmental policies one of their priorities. To understand why, the ELPC commissioned the veteran pollster Ann Selzer (credited as being “The Best Pollster” by Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight), to summarize Trump voters’ viewpoints on climate change and the environment. Selzer & Company conducted 12 focus groups in Grand Rapids, MI, Toledo, OH, and Fort Wayne, IN in the early months of 2017 shortly after President Trump’s inauguration. The groups were comprised of Trump voters who identified as climate change skeptics, defined here as people who did not believe it was a hoax, but also did not think human contribution was the cause. It is also worth noting that many of the members in these groups viewed their vote as against Hillary Clinton as opposed to for Donald Trump.
Though the results of the study were not presented by Mr. Learner, he has provided the report to our organization for our edification. Below are summaries of some of the findings. If you would like to read the full report, please send us an email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Climate Change v. Pollution
It is easy to equate climate change skeptics with people who do not care about the environment. In contrast, the participants of the study group for the most part believed that it is important for government to regulate clean air and clean water. In particular, water and the pollution of water bodies seemed to be the issue that concerned residents the most.
There is no doubt that water is essential to life. For many participants, the images of Flint, MI remained fresh in their minds and they felt that the government needs to keep water sources safe for consumption. In areas such as Grand Rapids, MI, where the local economy thrives on Lake Michigan tourism, residents understood the vulnerability of their economy if the lake was not protected. Furthermore, areas such as Fort Wayne, IN, where the rivers run brown, were a pertinent example of the effects of pollution. Thus, residents in these areas believed the EPA restrictions were necessary to keep a check on companies from polluting the environment and protecting sources of drinking water.
If pollution of water is such a great concern for these residents and for the most part support environmental regulation, one might ask why these people have not seen climate change in the same light. For most participants, climate change appeared to be a relatively abstract idea. Unlike water pollution, which can easily be seen by the naked eye, the effects of climate change cannot be perceived readily. Though some believe it is a threat, many do not think it is a higher priority than preserving water quality or creating new jobs.
In the age where fact and reason are not valued, one might wonder who, in the view of the general public, carries the most trust. As mentioned in Mr. Learner’s talk, scientists are heavily trusted by the general public, second only to the military and ahead of healthcare professions. This public trust has remained constant since the 70s. However, this trust in scientists depends on the issue, and faltered when the issue was climate change. Many members of the groups believe that climate change scientists had faked their data. Yet, when asked who they trust the most regarding environmental issues, the top performer was “Scientists from universities in participants’ respective states,” followed by, “Farmers in participants’ respective states,” and then the US Fish & Wildlife Service. This indicates that these participants may not believe any scientist, but will believe scientists of their home state’s universities.
The result indicates that state universities are a source of pride for many individuals.. It is good to know that as scientists at the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus, we are in a unique position for broader science advocacy throughout the state of Wisconsin.
Targeted messaging is one of the most effective ways of communicating a viewpoint to a skeptical audience. The most effective messages relate on a personal level, and many participants felt that words such as “safe” or “health” resonates the best. For example, safe water, or air that doesn’t harm your health are more effective messages than using phrases like clean water and clean air.
Furthermore, the results of the study indicate that many people are attuned to environmental issues. For CaSP this means that when speaking with individuals about an issue such as climate change, one could should invoke a productive conversation by first speaking about tangible environmental problems such as water quality.