Courting Hunters and Anglers
I’m not sure how many strategists would agree, but I honestly don’t think there’s a more important climate demographic than sportsmen. As an outdoor writer, as well as a longtime hunter and angler, I’d like to share some thoughts on why we should engage America’s 37 million sportsmen on climate change - as well as how we should go about that task.
Let’s look at the “why” first.
It’s hard to imagine a successful global climate accord without America stepping into a leadership role and exercising its full political, economic and moral authority. Unfortunately, until we break the partisan logjam in DC and bring both political parties to the negotiating table, any kind of unified American response to climate change is little more than a fantasy. Which means that our first, second and third priorities should be getting Republicans and Democrats to work together.
I know ... Fat chance.
Realistically, there are only two ways to create this kind of seismic shift. The first is to throw huge - and I mean truly astronomical - amounts of money at the issue. But since we don’t have mountains of cash lying around, we might as well wait for pigs to fly. We’re never going to compete with the fossil fuel interests on a purely financial basis.
The second option is to educate and energize key elements in the conservative base, and then have those elements put serious pressure on their elected leaders in DC. If the base shifts, conservative Senators and Congressmen will have a choice to make - either listen to their constituents or be voted out of office.
Which is where sportsmen come in. Most hunters and anglers are conservative or conservative-leaning. They’ve been helping elect conservative politicians for decades. But most sportsmen don’t vote for conservatives as a reflex action; they vote for them because they feel that conservative politicians share their values and worldview. If millions of sportsmen suddenly begin to realize that their elected officials are selling them out and putting their children and grandchildren at risk, they will demand immediate action - and dozens of climate deniers in Congress will suddenly start singing a different tune.
A quick aside: I’m convinced that if climate change had been framed as a conservative issue, the problem would have been solved decades ago. At a minimum, we would have had millions of armed citizens marching on DC and threatening to burn the whole town to the ground. And when you think about it, that’s exactly what should be happening right now. A small number of exceedingly powerful corporations are putting our entire country—not to mention our sons and daughters—at risk, and we’re standing around like we’re in the church choir, politely whispering “Excuse me ...” while the great fossil fuel orators pound the pulpit and preach the gospel of coal, oil and gas.
One thing is certain. Once sportsmen realize that their hunting and fishing—and their families—are at risk from climate change, they won’t swoon and collapse onto their fainting couches. They’ll raise holy hell and bring about a seismic shift in DC. The question isn’t if this will happen. It will. The question is whether it will happen in time for us to address climate change and avoid the worst of the positive feedback loops.
And that’s why we need to bring sportsmen and other conservative groups into the climate fight as soon as possible. We need people who are going to charge up the hill into the machine guns, we need people who, when the coach says, “Run through that damn wall!”, will try to run through that wall. We need—and forgive me for pointing this out, but it’s absolutely true—people with the courage of their convictions, who aren’t worried about being polite and gracious and politically correct; we need people with a backbone. There are indeed some folks like that on the left. My personal experience is that there are a hell of a lot more on the right.
So how should you talk to hunters and anglers about climate change? Here’s my advice.
Be honest. Be honest to a fault. Don’t try to represent yourself as something you’re not. You only get to lose someone’s trust once. Tell the truth about who you are and why you’re reaching out, and stick to the facts. If the science doesn’t support your message, then you’d better change your message.
Be respectful. A lot of Americans—especially urban Americans—look down on sportsmen as hicks or rednecks or, to put it more politely, anachronisms from a simpler time. Here’s a news flash. Sportsmen, like any other group, run the gamut, from dumb as a box of rocks to sheer genius, and anything that smacks of “I’m better than you because I don’t kill animals” is not only incredibly counterproductive, it’s completely unwarranted. If you’re always respectful, you’ll take all that potential negativity out of play.
Be grateful. Sportsmen are responsible for most of the great American conservation stories of the last hundred years. Their license fees and tax dollars have paid to restore fish and wildlife habitat all over our country. Don’t fall into the trap of blaming hunters and anglers for our environmental problems. On balance, they’ve done more than any other group to protect America’s outdoors. If you give them the respect and credit they’re due, they’ll be far more likely to listen to what you have to say.
Ask. Ask what hunters and anglers think, ask how they feel, ask why they are, or aren’t, worried about climate change. Then take the time to listen to what they have to say. It’s amazing how people react differently when you stop talking and actually listen.
Remember whom you’re talking to. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu stressed the importance of knowing your enemy. But he also made the case that it’s just as important to know yourself, your allies and your potential allies. Study up on the cognitive sciences and learn to frame your message in a way that allows sportsmen to hear what you’re saying. If you’re using green or environmental or progressive frames on most sportsmen, you’re not only wasting your time, you’re making the whole situation worse. Know your audience. Use conservative frames for conservative sportsmen.
When it’s appropriate, share Joe Romm’s point regarding libertarians and government intrusion. As Joe pointed out, "If you hate government intrusion into people’s lives, you’d better stop catastrophic global warming, because nothing drives a country more towards activist government than scarcity and deprivation." Dealing with climate change now will preclude government intrusion down the road. That’s a message that can resonate with certain sportsmen.
Ask for help when you need it. Bring in actual hunters and anglers who can help you frame and spread your message. Half of persuasion is the message and the other half is the messenger. Look in the mirror, and be honest. If you’re not the right person to make your case, then step back from the bullhorn and take the time to bring in someone else with the right skills and background. It can make a huge difference.
Stick to climate. It’s not your job to convince conservative sportsmen of the error of their ways, or to nudge them toward progressive values. It doesn’t matter whom they voted for in the last election or what other political or social positions they embrace. They have a right to their views, and conservative-bashing or anti-conservative rhetoric will almost always be counterproductive.
Focus on the things you have in common, not the areas that divide you. In my experience, most sportsmen treasure their families and our American landscapes. Those shared values are two excellent places to start building a connection.
At the end of the day, people trying to reach hunters and anglers on climate change have one huge advantage. We have reality on our side. Sportsmen already see the changes taking place on the landscape. Our job is to help them make the connection between what they’re seeing and what our scientists are saying—and then make them aware of the threat to their families, their sporting heritage and their outdoor traditions. If we’re successful, America’s 37 million hunters and anglers can change the climate and energy paradigm in DC. But keep in mind that reaching out to sportsmen isn’t preaching to the choir. We need to be smart, honest and effective if we’re going to educate hunters and anglers and turn them into climate activists.
About the author: Todd Tanner is a lifelong hunter and angler, a former fly fishing and big game guide, and a nationally recognized outdoor writer. He is also the founder and chair of Conservation Hawks, a nonprofit group focused on educating America’s hunters and anglers about climate change. His personal website is Casting West.