Why some American conservatives believe in climate change, but don't worry about it

By Jason Margolis, PRI's The World

North Dakota is a deeply conservative place, and its northwest corner is a deeply conservative part of the state — President Donald Trump captured nearly 80 percent of the vote in Williams County. Hillary Clinton manged just 13.5 percent.

Howard Klug is the mayor of Williston, the county seat: population 26,000. You may have heard of Williston — it’s at the center of North Dakota’s recent oil boom. I sat down with the 59-year-old mayor and asked him how people in his town feel about climate change.

“We’re not concerned about climate change. We live in North Dakota — it’s cold in the winter and hot in summer,” said Klug.

“Climate change, is it real?" he questioned. "There are things we need to do better in our country to make sure pollution standards, and the standards that may affect climate change, are regulated somewhat. But in the same light, it’s a big planet, we’ve been around here a long time, things have changed over the eons. I don’t believe that what we’re doing out here in western North Dakota, to mine the energy and those kinds of things, is affecting the climate.”

I’ve spoken with a lot of American conservatives in Middle America about climate change, and, it’s very often one of the harder topics to discuss. I can ask people about a range of contentious topics — from abortion to war — but, for whatever reason, when I ask about global warming, the mood nearly always grows tense.

I asked Klug why conservatives clench up when the topic comes up in interviews.

“Because the policies, they threaten their jobs,” said Klug. “If you’re a coal miner, if you’re an oil worker, they’re not going to destroy the planet or do anything like that. There are ways that you can control the carbon, there are ways that you can capture the gas, the methane and those kinds of things. And that’s why people get rankled up a little bit right off the bat.”

I pressed him. When the overwhelming majority of scientists say we need to curb carbon emissions, does he buy that argument? (Roughly 97 percent of climate scientists hold the consensus position that climate change is “extremely likely” due to human activities.)

“I buy it in a way,” said Klug. “Sure, let’s keep the carbon out of the air, keep it out of the atmosphere, and those kinds of things. But there are ways to do it. Does [oil extraction] have to be shut down until we’ve totally figured that out? No, I don’t think so. Just keep working toward that point. We’ve got a big world, and it’s healed itself, it can heal itself, I really believe that. So let’s just keep the conservative way of looking at the industry and also what we’re trying to do in harmony with the planet, and hopefully it works out. I’m sure it will.”

I’ve met plenty of people who are simply anti-science, or who think scientists are lying to us, for whatever reason. Klug wasn’t one of them. I told him, to me, it sounded like he wasn’t arguing with scientists, but also believed the nation needed to maintain pro-growth strategies.

“Absolutely, the scientists, well, they’re scientists. They’re the ones that change the world, and come up with ideas, theories that have been proven, in most cases, correct," he said. "They’ve helped the world population, whether they’re medical, whether they’re climate people, whether they’re engineers. But the other part of it is growth.”

Mayors like Klug are in a tough spot. His community has oil under the ground, and oil equals money for new schools, hospitals and recreation centers. But extracting oil also means releasing greenhouse gasses, which exacerbate the impacts of climate change.

Many conservatives I’ve met in “flyover states” become deeply bothered when “coastal elites” and environmentalists (and reporters) lecture them that they can’t extract fossil fuels like coal and oil, fuels that almost all of us rely on to heat our homes and power our cars.

Of course, many environmentalists, scientists, and progressives see this reaction as the height of immorality and scientific ignorance. To them, they’re not fighting for new rec centers, but the very survival of the planet.