Bipartisan Communication Insights: American Eagle Compact
The National Audubon Society and ConservAmerica have partnered to create a campaign called the American Eagle Compact. The campaign uses the patriotic symbol of an American eagle to rally conservation-minded citizens across the political spectrum. The Eagle’s Nest blog tells the stories of its supporters.
How can climate communicators build bipartisan campaigns? Climate has been politically polarized to the point where we even change the language we use to avoid friction. Some communicators recommend focusing on other issues such as national security and health instead of talking about climate directly.
Is there a way we can reverse this political trend and show how climate change reaches us all? If so, how can we do it? Can we put climate change on a politically neutral footing? Since this is election week in the United States, these are timely questions.
To explore the answers, I interviewed David Yarnold, President and CEO of the National Audubon Society, and Rob Sisson, President of ConservAmerica, about their approach to reducing political polarization and their advice for climate communicators.
Kat Friedrich: How did you choose the American eagle as the symbol for a nonpartisan conservation movement?
David Yarnold: One of the greatest American conservation success stories is the rescue of our national symbol, the Bald Eagle. In the 1950s, the bald eagle was headed for extinction, with a mere 412 pairs in the lower 48 states. Its population had been ravaged by indiscriminate hunting and shooting, destruction of forest habitat, and overuse of DDT, a pesticide that weakened eggs so severely that they cracked under the weight of incubating females.
Facing the loss of our national symbol, Americans rallied. Individuals, communities, private groups, industry and governments at every level worked to save the Bald Eagle.
We saved our national bird, an integral part of our heritage, a symbol of our strength, and a bellwether of our health. And we made the environment safer for people in the process.
That's a brilliant example of what Americans can accomplish. We believe the time is right to rediscover that conservation is where we Americans can find common ground and join forces to write new success stories.
Rob Sisson: The eagle is also symbolic of our national spirit and historic position as a world leader. The American eagle embodies everything this campaign is about: conservation, nonpartisan values, and our country’s unparalleled leadership.
Kat Friedrich: Why do you think conservation has become a politically divisive issue in the United States?
David Yarnold: It’s not just conservation. The suits in Congress and in statehouses across the country have polarized absolutely every issue. But for conservation, it’s especially frustrating.
Political partisans have turned common-sense environmental stewardship – which has served our nation well since Theodore Roosevelt fought abuse of our natural resources – into a wedge issue. Talk about the value of nature and the parties head for their respective corners, insult each other and sit on their hands.
Rob Sisson: Poll after poll shows, clearly, that conservation is not divisive among American citizens. It is only in our political class where find a huge chasm. Our primary election system rewards extreme views on both sides of the spectrum. More influential, though, is campaign money and its sources. Speaking for Republicans, rank-and-file members are way ahead of leadership on conservation issues. We must remove the hyper-partisanship and restore conservation to its rightful and historic place as one of our nation’s top priorities. Theodore Roosevelt said, “Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation.” Politicians should heed that guidance.
Kat Friedrich: What would you say are the political similarities and differences between conservation and climate change issues in the United States?
David Yarnold: Not every conservation issue is a climate change issue, but the overlap is undeniable. Whether you're talking about preserving wetlands in the face of sea level rise, the fragmentation of habitat for natural gas drilling, or the siting of wind and solar power, the linkage is clear enough that Audubon made Climate and Energy one of its top priorities. Where birds thrive – with clean air, water and green places to absorb CO2 – people prosper.
Rob Sisson: Climate is a subset of conservation policy, but it has ramifications across several public policy areas like national defense, tax, health, and economic policies. As we’ve seen in 2012, the impact of climate change is becoming personal. Just like localized pollution, land use, or air quality concerns, people are now seeing how negatively climate change impacts their own lives. The political difference is in the possible solutions to climate compared to solutions to local conservation issues.
Kat Friedrich: Do you believe it is easier to make conservation nonpartisan than climate change, or not? Why?
David Yarnold: Americans still fundamentally believe in preserving our heritage and leaving the world a better – not a worse – place for our kids and their kids. That’s not a partisan issue. Politically divisive rhetoric that gets in the way of those goals is unproductive. I'd rather find common ground and to make progress than… perpetuate the status quo.
Rob Sisson: Yes. Conservation is part of the American tradition and is supported by citizens from across the political spectrum. Everyone has benefited from our nation’s leadership on conservation issues, from national parks to clean water. In very real terms, conservation is a patriotic virtue. As citizens make the connection between climate change and their local or favorite conservation issues, they’ll come to see climate action in the same light. I think this is especially true as people begin to think in terms of what kind of world we are going to leave for future generations.
Kat Friedrich: What lessons can climate change communicators learn from your experiences with the American Eagle Compact?
David Yarnold: First of all, we see that it's working. The stories that Americans are telling us about bridging generational and regional gaps are heartfelt. Climate change communicators have to recognize regional differences and respect those ways of life if they expect to connect with the public.
Folks in South Carolina and Louisiana and Colorado don't want to be preached at; they want us to acknowledge their appreciation of their lands and waters and the role those places play in their families' histories.
A woman in South Carolina told me, "When I look out at these wetlands, I don't see carbon sinks and it doesn't make me think about oil sheiks. I see the places where my kids spent their holidays and vacations. I see a little summer home that's been in my husband's family for three generations. I feel respect and I feel love. And Audubon gets that: this is about my way of life and my values, not about policy."
So, the compact’s purpose is to rally Americans around shared values, remove the politically loaded wedges, and hold our elected leaders accountable for responsible stewardship and common-sense conservation.
We know those ideas are supported by many households across the country.
Earlier this year, two polling firms – one Republican, the other Democratic – queried a sample of nearly 2,400 voters in six Western states about their attitudes towards conservation. The sample was almost evenly split among Republicans, Democrats, and independents.
Nearly two-thirds of the voters identified themselves as conservationists. Strong majorities across the spectrum agreed with the statement: “We can protect land and water and have a strong economy with good jobs at the same time, without having to choose one over the other.” [The] majorities who agreed [were] 75 percent of Republicans, 75 percent of independents, and 84 percent of Democrats.
Outdoor recreation is the fastest growing pastime in America. A new Interior Department survey shows that nearly 40 percent of all Americans hunt, fish or watch birds.
These are not Republican or Democratic pastimes. They are American pastimes. Americans are fed up with partisan politics that divide us. This is one of those rare issues that bring us back together.
And I’ve heard that from hundreds of fed-up people all across the country since we started this campaign.
“The planet and its health concern all of us human beings,” wrote Jennifer, who identified herself as a political independent. “It is not a right or a left issue.”
Lois summed it up most eloquently. “Conservation is for me a commitment to my children, my grandchildren and their children and grandchildren,” she wrote from New York. “We do not own this earth; we hold it in trust for those who come after us.”
Rob Sisson: People who’ve signed the Compact come from every walk of life and every point on the political spectrum. Yet, they each have a personal story about conservation, and more and more have stories about climate change and its impact on their families. Real lives with real impacts – that’s how we’ll move our leaders to take action. Speaking from experience, I know most Republican elected officials believe that “conservation is conservative” and would like to provide leadership on a number of issues. Campaigns like the Compact will provide the grassroots support necessary to give those leaders the confidence to step out and speak out.
Learn more about the American Eagle Compact
Kat Friedrich is a Boston-based nonprofit communicator who blogs at http://katfriedrich.wordpress.com