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James Wilcox IV, a 28-year-old Army veteran, lives in Tacoma, Washington, as he wraps up his undergraduate degree in history at the University of Washington. His father is a fourth-term Washington state legislator, and his family has owned a farm since 1909, which today specializes in cage-free, organic eggs. According to his friends, Wilcox enjoys debating politics, and he describes himself as a moderate Republican.

Wilcox rates himself as “concerned” on Global Warming’s Six Americas, and of his fellow Republicans, he says, “I could certainly wish that more Republican politicians were willing to be scientifically literate.”

Wilcox has company; 31% of American Republicans agree that humans are a major driver of climate change, according to public opinion research by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which publishes this site.

While it’s tempting to stereotype one’s political opponents, Wilcox is an example of those who present an opportunity to galvanize bipartisan agreement on climate change. Extreme voices often grab headlines and stoke social media wars, but productive conversations take place more quietly, allowing a glimmer of optimism amid our seemingly intractably partisan politics.

Useless gestures? Or concern for legacy?

Even though Wilcox understands the premise of anthropogenic climate change, he’s not optimistic about “solutions.”

“There’s not much that can be done that will actually make a difference,” he says, his voice tinged with cynicism. “But there’s plenty of symbolic, useless gestures that can be made.”

Enter Don Kraus, an affable 63-year-old progressive who retired in 2014 to focus on climate change advocacy. Kraus lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where he is a volunteer field development coordinator for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Kraus appreciates that group because it has “people from across the political spectrum, and they’re really solutions-focused.”

“We have to address climate change and we have to address it soon,” Kraus explains. “I’m concerned about the legacy we leave for our kids and grandkids.”

Kraus and Wilcox share more in common than might be expected for people with opposite political affiliations, a wide generational gap, and hometowns at opposite ends of the country. All the more reason to have them sit down for a video call and share their perspectives.

This is the fourth in a series of Common Ground conversations, wherein people with different outlooks on climate change come together for an open dialog. See the preceding three parts.

Before their interview, Wilcox and Kraus rated themselves on the Six Americas spectrum. Image adapted from Six Americas study.

Not all Republicans reject climate science

Wilcox and Kraus see many issues similarly, as was revealed by their responses to a questionnaire they completed prior to their conversation. They both agree that climate change will have negative impacts on their lives, and they view potential “solutions” as generally beneficial.

Wilcox and Kraus rated their own values on environmental themes. Responses that fall toward the left side of the table reflect a strong commitment to environmental issues. Responses toward the right side represent a lower priority or lack of trust about environmental issues.

Interestingly, when it comes to trust in scientists, their positions are swapped from what one might expect. Both are inclined to accept what scientists say, but Wilcox has a greater sense of trust than Kraus. This is a promising stance from a Republican, and a good reminder that partisan stereotypes don’t apply to everyone.

“If you choose not to trust scientists, I don’t know who you’re expected to trust,” Wilcox says. “I don’t think anecdotal experience over a short period of time is a good basis for estimating something as abstract as human impacts on the Earth as a whole.”

Kraus largely agrees but is slightly hesitant, unsure about climate models. “We’re still figuring it out,” he says of the scientific community.

Wilcox describes the current state of the science and the models as “the best understanding that we have so far.”

“I would agree with that,” replies Kraus. “We’re closer together than we are apart.”

Indeed, the two are close together, but a Republican leaning on a progressive to trust climate science is an interesting role reversal.

Rural concerns are a priority

Wilcox and Kraus differ most on the economic impact of environmental regulations.

With deep roots in his family farm, Wilcox reflects the rural perspective, “The people who get hurt the most by environmental regulations are farmers or people who live and work in rural areas,” he says.

Wilcox acknowledges that environmental interests play a role in his home state, but he feels they fall short when it comes to earning support from rural populations. “The environmental lobby only cares what happens in and around Seattle,” he laments.

An economic argument forms the basis for Wilcox’s summary of conservatives’ resistance on climate policy: “A lot of people think it [climate change] doesn’t exist, because if it does and it’s a problem that needs to be addressed, well, all the suggestions being proposed are going to put them out of work, or further depress their area.”

“I completely agree with Jim about rural communities,” Kraus says. “It’s clearly uphill sledding. But people who are concerned about [climate change] stretch across the political spectrum, so there’s room for conversations.”

But Wilcox’s criticisms of environmental policies run deeper than pure economics. He feels somewhat disrespected, too. “Another facet of the antipathy towards government environmental regulation is this presumption that people who are closest to the land are the ones who can’t be trusted.”

Carbon fee and dividend – a solution both sides can live with

Kraus offers a concrete idea. “I think the best solution that can make a broad shift would be a carbon fee and dividend,” the approach supported by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and some free-market interests. Put a price on carbon and get those funds right back to households so we don’t try to solve climate on the backs of our most vulnerable.” He continues, “Let the market make decisions as to what’s the best way to address it.”

Wilcox agrees, tentatively. “A carbon tax would be the easiest way to do it and would definitely help.” But he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t think that we can change the course of today’s warming. “I don’t really think it’s preventable at this point.”

Wilcox elaborates on his point, “Not that we shouldn’t take steps to reduce emissions, but the more important steps are how do we adapt to the reality of climate change.”

Kraus responds, “I don’t think it’s an either/or – mitigate or adapt. It’s both. The more mitigation we do right now the greater the impact. There would be less adaptation we need down the road.”

Optimism seeps into Kraus’ voice as he explains the promise of carbon pricing to nudge consumer behavior. He uses the example of cigarette taxes as one tool that helped dramatically curtail smoking in the U.S. “If we do it smart and we do it quick, we can make the difference that we need.”

Wilcox is far from getting swept up in optimism, but the idea holds appeal for him. “I guess that makes sense to me … I assume the response from corporate lobbyists would be, ‘but businesses will suffer.’”

“Actually companies like Exxon-Mobil and Shell are on board with the concept,” Kraus responds. “They’d rather have market predictability than government regulations. They see it as a solution they could work with.”

Wilcox agrees that most energy companies will be able to diversify and adjust to changes in carbon policy. But he feels that opponents of climate change policy are “a class of voters who feel like regulation will destroy their ability to make a living.”

“That’s the whole purpose of the dividend,” Kraus says. He explains that money collected in carbon fees will go back to households to help offset higher energy expenses. “And then they’ll have more money to spend in the economy.” He continues, persuasively, “It’s not if you price carbon, I think that’s gonna happen one way or another. It’s how you do it that’s going to make the difference if it’s an effective solution or not.”

Wilcox says of the dividend, “I hadn’t really heard about that. That would be one way.” But he wonders if the money paid back to households would be enough, particularly for those whose jobs are negatively affected by new regulations. “If people felt more [financially] secure they would be more open to something as disruptive as some of the solutions being proposed.”

Overall, the idea of a carbon fee and dividend has some traction with Wilcox: “It does make sense. I don’t feel qualified to address all the variables involved, but to me, yeah sure, it makes sense,” he says.

‘It’s the messenger that makes the difference’

Issues tend to be driven by their messages, which, on either side can be distorted well beyond the point of reason. Wilcox laments that what he regards as Republicans’ anti-science rhetoric is unhelpful.

“I do find the conspiracy-mongering to be really tiresome,” Wilcox concedes. “There’s plenty of things to be arguing about – but I never quite understand what the purpose of the conspiracy is … like they’re all [scientists] just after the grant money? I find this thinking to be very tiresome.”

Meanwhile Wilcox feels his party is missing a chance to be part of a substantive conversation about climate change. “I think there’s a huge problem where alternative solutions are not offered. Instead, they just cast the other side as ridiculous.”

Kraus resumes his optimism, this time in the political realm. “We have the Climate Solutions Caucus, which has 30 Republicans and 30 Democrats. For the first time in the Republican caucus there’s room for some good bipartisan conversations about climate solutions.” (Since their discussion, new membership in the Climate Solutions Caucus has boosted the tally to 33 Republican and 33 Democratic members of Congress.)

As high-profile Republicans acknowledge the problem and the need for solutions, it will get easier for others to follow suit. “Then you’re not a maverick, breaking away from the herd,” observes Wilcox.

“The best way to convince people is to use messengers they already trust,” explains Wilcox. “I think having groups like that [the Climate Solutions Caucus] is really helpful.”

“I think Jim is right,” replies Kraus. “It’s the messenger that makes the difference.”

Wilcox himself may be just one of those messengers. He jokes that his friends are likely to post on Facebook to suggest that this year’s cold winter is evidence that climate scientists are wrong. He may not confront his friends directly, but Wilcox says: “I just passive-aggressively share articles” that support the idea that climate change is real.

‘There are environmental lobbyists who can be reasonable’

Wilcox bristles at the idea of fossil fuel projects like Washington’s proposed Millennium Coal Terminal being rejected because of environmental concerns, but he agrees that renewable energy offers a solution that’s compatible with the rural way of life. “There’s plenty of farmers in eastern Washington who are all for wind energy,” he says as he points to additional income earned by farmers who host wind turbines on their farmland.

“Texas is the same way,” replies Kraus.

Wilcox nods, “I think the more you create win-wins like that, the easier it will be.”

Kraus and Wilcox relax at their point of ready agreement. Wilcox jokes, “Don’s helped rehabilitate my usual view of environmental activists.

“I won’t say I was expecting horns and a tail, but … a little bit,” Wilcox says with a wry smile, “Maybe just some pointy teeth.”

Kraus laughs. “That’s our secret plan. To be nice.”

Wilcox underscored his point in a follow-up e-mail, as he offered insight that policymakers and advocates can take to heart:

“It was good to see that there are environmental lobbyists who can be reasonable. That itself was actually the most surprising about Don’s answers, the fact that he wasn’t just trying to punish evil polluters but was actually looking for ways to help those who will be adversely affected by climate policy.”

Indeed, being nice is a nearly sure-fire way to increase one’s odds of being heard and listened to. That approach can apply not just to one’s tone, but also to the crux of advocacy and policy.

Is the policy – and the messaging – seen as punitive, or supportive? The answer may forecast the likelihood of success.

The ‘Common Ground’ Series:

Seeking ‘common ground’ in climate change dialogues

Changing one’s views through dialogue

Middle ground: Fertile for climate change dialogue

Dissolving stereotypes and seeking climate ‘solutions’

Finding common ground amid climate controversy

Karin Kirk

Karin Kirk is a geologist and freelance writer with a background in climate education. She's a scientist by training, but the human elements of climate change occupy most of her current work. Karin is...