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The environmental movement has a diversity problem. And it’s not just that there are too many white, middle-class men, true though that is. One of the biggest political challenges for climate change activism is a shortage of conservatives among its ranks. This was the central hypothesis of George Marshall’s talk to Bright Blue’s most recent Energy and Climate Think Forum. He argued strongly that to build a political consensus around tackling climate change, the centre-right must be engaged. To do this, environmentalists must understand and speak to conservative values.

During his talk, he played a clip from Margaret Thatcher’s speech to the 1989 Conservative Party Conference, where she expressed her desire for Britain to take a leading role in shaping the world’s response to climate change. The place of the centre-right, however, in the vanguard of the climate debate wasn’t maintained. One of his most interesting slides was a graph showing the gradual polarisation of the climate change debate. Now concern about climate change is around twice as common on the centre-left as on the centre-right. Some polling carried out by ComRes in September 2015 found a similar imbalance. Just 52% of the Conservative voters they polled agreed with the statement that climate change is happening and is mainly caused by human activity, in contrast to 73% of Labour voters.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Margaret Thatcher’s early speeches on climate change won applause from conservative activists. Angela Merkel has successfully crafted a consensus across the political spectrum on this issue in Germany. It’s been a guiding conviction of George Marshall’s work that conservatism is not incompatible with tackling climate change. The problem, he argues, is not just that the centre-right isn’t engaged in the climate change debate, but that they are actively alienated by some of the language and concepts used by campaigners.

His presentation focused on a report on how to talk to the centre-right about energy efficiency, published by Climate Outreach, the climate change communications company which he co-founded. The centre-right focus groups reacted positively to narratives about avoiding waste being common sense, about improving quality of life through the air we breathe, and about local democracy being important for determining new energy infrastructure. He argues that, by focusing on these ground-up narratives, conservatives can be persuaded to back environmental policies. By contrast, top-down arguments driven by statistics do not convince. Choice of language is very important, and too often insufficient care is given to deploying the right framing for conservatives.

Bright Blue has recently launched our new Green conservatism project, which aims to tackle this very problem. As we argued in a piece on ConservativeHome, we believe that conservatism and concern for the environment are not just compatible, but mutually reinforcing. At the end of his speech, George Marshall delivered a stark warning for green conservatives. Some issues in the political lexicon, over time, become identity markers because of their prolonged association with one particular side of the spectrum. Should climate change become such an issue, conservatives will become automatically deaf to this major global challenge. That is why it’s so important that there are conservative narratives and policies about protecting the environment. We hope Bright Blue’s project can contribute to meeting George Marshall’s challenge.

Sam Hall is a Researcher at Bright Blue