Taming Our Tribal Hearts

Taming Our Tribal Hearts

It’s hard to make a living as a farmer. It’s impossible when your land becomes a river.

That’s what fifth-generation Nebraska farmer, Brett Adams, encountered after the Missouri River breached a nearby levee and surged across his farm. Adams’ story is well-told in the CBS News special, A Climate Reckoning in the Heartland, which documents the record-breaking Missouri River flood of 2019.

When asked about the role of climate change in the flooding, Adams says, "I’m not a climate-change guy, as far as climate change, global warming or any of that stuff. But have I seen the weather change in, say, my 20-year farming career? Absolutely!" He grew up on the farm, and notes that he now regularly sees intense rainstorms that were unheard of when he was a kid.

Adams understands that the weather is not what it used to be, which is the very definition of a changed climate. The Missouri River flooding can be explained (and was predicted) by climate science, and there is no doubt that climate change contributes significantly to the increased flooding in the Midwest. Yet, despite his personal observations, Adams distances himself from this science using a statement of identity (“I’m not a climate-change guy”).

Indeed, personal identity is now a key political obstacle to sensible climate policy in the United States. George Packer notes that Americans have grown increasingly tribal, and tribes demand loyalty in return for conferring security and a sense of belonging. Tribal members will more readily accept as true any information that reinforces their beliefs and values, a phenomenon called cultural cognition.

Jonathan Chait describes how this fuels the “alternative-fact universe, in which pseudo-experts can confidently explain why tax cuts will increase revenue, Obamacare will fail to increase health-insurance coverage, greenhouse-gas emissions will not warm the planet” and only 500 Americans will die from COVID-19. This alternative-fact universe drives a partisan and geographic resistance, in which many Republicans and rural Americans “push back against out-of-touch urbanites, meddlesome environmentalists and alarmist liberals who are seen as trying to impose their will on small towns and farming communities they do not understand.”

Paul Krugman explains that the alternative-fact universe has been supported for decades by those who benefit from it, including the fossil-fuel industry and right-wing media outlets. Playing to tribal behavior is itself now a business model, with talk-show hosts demonizing “the other side” while shilling nutritional supplements or COVID-19 cures. Online, algorithms reward the most provocative messages to elicit the clicks that generate advertising revenues.

Our tribal instincts are very powerful, particularly when inflamed by economic and social inequality. Those exploiting our tribalism have unleashed an avalanche of contempt. Americans are encouraged not just to support certain policy alternatives, but to distrust and disdain those who hold contrary viewpoints. America’s Hidden Tribes notes that “we don’t seem to disagree anymore without perceiving another person’s views as stupid, wrong or even evil. We’re being played off each other; and told to see each other as threats and enemies, not as Americans just like us but with separate experiences and views.”

This leaves us at a remarkable crossroads, where our need to understand the scientific realities of climate change and pandemics collides with our need for belonging and acceptance. If we succumb to our proclivity to separate into tribes and view each other as lacking charitable intent, our ability to address climate change is doomed. If we cannot differentiate beliefs from objective evidence, we will never be able to rise to the collective challenge before us.

Matt Nisbet posits that progress requires rebuilding “our civic capacity to discuss, debate and disagree in ways that do not turn every aspect of climate politics into an identity-driven tribal war between good and evil.” We cannot be “partisan persuaders, but instead partners in face-to-face dialogue with other Americans.” America’s Hidden Tribes has identified a group representing two-thirds of Americans, who they call the Exhausted Majority, that is ready to conduct this dialogue.

Elements of this conversation should cross the tribal barrier. National climate action will have many benefits for rural America, including investing in agriculture to expand carbon sequestration (along with paying farmers to modify their practices), creating rural jobs and revenue by generating electricity through wind and solar and making major public investments to rebuild the electrical grid that ties together towns, cities and states.

A new dialogue is already underway in the agriculture and livestock industries, where major players are coming together to identify the most promising strategies for reducing emissions in the sector while retaining profitability. Young farmers in Nebraska are engaged, as are children around the world. Children are also influencing their parents’ thinking, with daughters more effective than sons in shifting their parents’ views.

In my own public talks, I start by saying, “I’m not here to tell you what to believe. I’m here to present scientific evidence.” This allows everyone (even those self-identified “skeptics“) to recognize that they can accept the projections of climate scientists—and debate solutions to the crisis—without sacrificing the values they hold dear. Eventually, I see people leaning in, showing curiosity and thinking logically rather than tribally. Gaining a shared understanding, while respecting beliefs and values, is foundational for taking on the problem at the scale necessary to meet the crisis.

It’s in our best interest to tame our tribal hearts. The societal transformation that’s needed is beyond our experience—but that doesn’t mean it’s beyond our capabilities.

With everything on the line, we might just surprise ourselves.