So imagine you're a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club. If you fit the profile of the typical member, you're liberal, well-educated, and especially concerned about the environment. After all, the goal of the Sierra Club is to protect the environment against any and all hazards. The latest one, of course, is climate change.
You need allies to move your agenda forward. Have you considered the Tea Party?
The Tea Party? Besides being very conservative and pro-Republican, the typical Tea Party member appears to be a climate change skeptic. Are you crazy?
Maybe? Maybe not? At least some members of the Sierra Club apparently think not, as the Sierra Club has teamed up with the Tea Party in Georgia to help push the adoption of solar energy. As a result, Georgia has gone from having virtually no solar in 2013 now to being number eight of all the states in solar adoption.
Sometimes politics makes for strange bedfellows!
It's pretty obvious why the Sierra Club wants solar in Georgia, so why would it become a priority for the Tea Party? So far as I know, the Tea Party has not had a "Paul on the Road to Damascus" conversion about climate change.
The answer: a dislike of excessive nuclear power costs, as well as a dislike of monopolies. Debbie Dooley, a Tea Party activist in Georgia, has summed it up well: "It's all about message. Free market, competition, choice, expanding the energy portfolio and energy mix. I don't want excessive regulation." She's not alone.
The recent evidence in Georgia suggests that Tea Party advocates like solar because it's very cost competitive, and also because members don't like being forced to pay for gigantic cost overruns on an as-yet-unfinished nuclear power plant.
Others who are trying to overcome skepticism about climate change ought to take notice. Many who fear climate change have been preaching a message of doom and gloom. It hasn't moved the typical climate change skeptic one inch. If anything, the louder that advocates of action to stop climate change yell, the more the typical climate change skeptic digs his or her heels in.
Absolutely no one should be surprised by this. After all, when was the last time you changed your mind because someone told you a bunch of facts; then, when you expressed skepticism, that person called you ignorant and stupid?
The answer: precisely never! No one changes their mind because someone spouts facts and figures.
But minds can be changed. One way to do is to follow three steps.
Step 1: acknowledge that it's understandable why the person feels the way they do.
Step 2: reframe the problem in a way that addresses the skeptic's concerns.
Step 3: show the skeptic how the "reframing" can benefit them.
This approach can work well, but it is rarely used.
But it appears the Sierra Club in Georgia has done that in enlisting the help of the Tea Party. Let's look how they did this.
First, they didn't say that the Tea Party was ignorant on the issue. Instead, they sought their assistance.
Second, they didn't try to get help by reciting the usual "climate change doomsday scenarios". Instead, they reframed this as an issue of free markets, competition, choice, and reduction of excessive regulations. By making these types of arguments, they got the attention of the Tea Party.
Third, they're getting it done without relying on the usual "requirements" to encourage alternative energy, namely tax credits, net metering, or legislative action.
This should be exciting news for those of us who want to promote alternative energy.
So what lesson does the Georgia case provide for the rest of us? Let me suggest five:
#1: Reframe the climate change issue
Those of us who are very concerned about climate change keep assuming that we'll persuade skeptics by painting doomsday scenarios. Folks, it isn't working! In fact, the "doomsday" strategy reminds me of Albert Einstein's definition of stupidity, even insanity: keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. Stop talking about polar bears and sea level rise. Instead, reframe climate change into issues that conservatives care about.
#2: Build arguments that will appeal to conservatives
The people in Georgia have reframed it as a matter of lower costs, elimination of monopolies, and less regulation.
Guess what? It's working! So instead of painting those doomsday scenarios, focus instead on how addressing climate change actually helps do things about which conservatives care. In the Georgia case, it's a desire for lower costs and regulation, as well as a desire to limit monopolies.
In Georgia's case, lots of people – including lots of conservatives – are really mad that consumers have seen their utility bills go up considerably, all to pay for a behind schedule nuclear plant. Want to get the attention of a conservative? Bring up stuff like that!
#3: Make allies with the people you least likely expect to be interested
Once you find something like this, start considering unusual allies. Why not create a coalition between the Sierra Club and the Tea Party? Now those are very strange bedfellows, but they apparently decided to come together in Georgia on alternative energy. It's not the first time something like this has happened, and it won't be the last.
Supporters of alternative energy, such as the Sierra Club, appealed to the desire of the Tea Party, reframing the climate change issue as a pocketbook one, as well as one focused on reduced regulation.
Having done this, they turned attention to a key player in every state – the commission that regulates electric utilities.
#4: Focus attention on your state's utility regulators
Even though pretty much everyone has taken high school civics, we don't know a great deal about how our Federal government works. We know even less about our state governments in general, and still less about our state public utility commissions – the agencies that regulate electric power, cable TV, and our phones. We all really should pay more attention, but we all know there are lots of things to which we should give attention.
The reason a state public utility commission is so important is that it has a lot of influence on what electric utilities do. In Georgia's case, the public utility commission has gotten Georgia Power – the state's major electric utility – to start making lots of investments in solar. That's the reason Georgia has moved up so much.
In blue states such as California, getting people on the public utility commission who are sympathetic to alternative energy is fairly straightforward. But Georgia is a deep red, conservative state, the kind you'd think would be hostile to alternative energy.
However, if you can get the attention of the Tea Party, and get them on your side, you're likely to have more success influencing your public utility commission in places such as Georgia.
#5: Focus on alternative energy as a "pocket book" issue
In Georgia, that has meant reframing climate change in the ways described above – appealing to the pocket books of voters, as well as to those who want less regulation. Given that alternative energy is now highly cost competitive – certainly more cost competitive than coal, and now even natural gas – consumers of all sorts ought to be very sympathetic – even if they love Donald Trump. Remember, voters may love Donald Trump a lot, but they love having money in their own pockets even more!
The experience of Georgia should be very encouraging to all of us who are very concerned about climate change. If we will only stop preaching about "doomsday scenarios" and start reframing the issue in ways that will persuade climate change skeptics to join us.