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Conversations Across America: Talking Climate Change with Conservative Voters

Meera Subramanian

With mid-terms just days away, there’s been a lot of talk about the state of our political discourse: the extreme polarization and seeming inability of Democrats and Republicans to speak civilly with one another.

Climate change may be one of the most extreme examples of partisan polarization on an issue that – at its heart – isn’t even political. It’s a matter of science. But, overwhelmingly, those who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 say they are concerned or alarmed about climate change while those who voted for Donald Trump are doubtful or dismissive of climate change.

In this deeply divided environment, is it possible to find middle ground? That’s the question freelance journalist Meera Subramanian set out to answer. She traveled to eight conservative communities around the country to talk about climate change and she has written about her experience in a series of stories published on Inside Climate News called Finding Middle Ground: Conversations Across America.

The series was a direct response to the 2016 election, and the realization at how polarized and partisan the issue of climate change had become in the United States.

Inside Climate News approached Subramanian about reporting on the stories because they felt that the issue wasn't as black and white as the media has portrayed it.

“I wanted to get to different parts of the country, and I wanted to cover some of the key issues that are at stake with climate change. Things like agriculture, and heavy flooding events, and sea level rise,” Subramanian said.

She was able to narrow down her locations by looking at areas hit heavily by climate change, and election results that showed a conservative base.

One of those locations was Cape Cod, where storms are hitting the coastline aggressively. Another was West Texas, and another Montana. 

Almost everywhere that Subramanian went, people recognized that there were changes happening. What was tricky, she said, is what people were attributing it to.

“Across the country they say that the weather always changes. The climate changes.”

Individuals gave examples of glaciers, and that our land used to be under glaciers. She heard it in Wisconsin and North Dakota. And that’s true, a lot of those places were under miles of ice sheets at certain points in history.

“What's more nuanced is whether people think that we could be having an effect on what's happening now. And often a lack of understanding of the pace of acceleration of what's happening now, and that pace can't be attributed to anything else besides human caused burning of carbon,” Subramanian said.

In her reporting, Subramanian spoke with individuals who believed in climate change, and individuals who didn’t. She found conservatives who are taking action against climate change, and others who denied that taking action could help.

It's a complicated topic, but the more one-on-one conversations we can have, the better. 

"Maybe we should try listening about it at the Thanksgiving table. Maybe that's what we need to do a little bit more of." 


Web content produced by Liz Lerner. 

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Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.