The Optimist’s Guide to America’s Climate Change Challenges
Here’s the deal
The world is not on track to address climate change. Earlier this month, the cover of the Economist magazine shouted “The World is Losing the War Against Climate Change.” Also this month, a much talked about special feature from New York Times Magazine called “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change” laid out how close the U.S. may have come to addressing its climate challenges, how settled the science was, and how we fell short. Spoiler alert: its subject matter is the 80’s, not the present. Even as renewable energy costs fall and and more renewable energy generation is deployed in the U.S., global investment in renewable energy actually dropped in 2017. Indeed, as Richard Newell, noted in a piece in Axios, while there have been additions of renewable energy, the global energy transition away from fossil fuels has not really yet begun.
So, that’s not good. What are we to make of this? Is this the wakeup call we need to address climate change? Or do “doom and gloom” articles make people feel helpless and lead to paralysis?
I’m not sure winning versus losing is even the right frame to work from, or that the debate even actually matters very much. After all, ‘losing’ right now is a bit like measuring the likelihood that Hillary Clinton was going to be elected President in 2016 — informative, but only the final tally counts. Further, if we decided we were winning, might we find it even harder to take action as status quo interests encouraged everyone to slow down a little bit?
What Resonates with the Public?
Regardless of what is in the press regarding climate change, does any of this information have salience with the American public? Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication has conducted extensive research on Americans’ beliefs about global warming and found that slice of the American public we most-need to reach (the “cautious”) pay attention to news less than the average American, and they pay the least attention to environmental news out of any of the six defined groups. Importantly, these folks do think that climate change is going to have real impacts on future generations, but they don’t currently “feel” the issue.
That’s consistent with other research, which suggests climate is not a top political issue. Research from Pew suggests that we’re actually trending in the right direction here: over the last 8 years, the share of Americans saying that protecting the environment should be a top policy priority has increased 18 percentage points since 2010 (from 44% to 62%), seven points in the last year alone. So we’re making some progress, but we’re not over the hump yet.
That said, as the impacts of climate change are felt more and more frequently, these issues may receive more attention in our broader political discourse. Tom Friedman makes this point well recently in his piece, “What if Mother Nature is on the Ballot in 2020.” He points out that there is an opportunity for investment and progress in clean energy as an antidote to the increasingly destructive impacts of climate change.
So what is it going to take to change the politics of this issue? Similar to many other issues, I’d argue the answer is money. But I don’t mean political contributions; I’m talking about the economic benefits created by investments in clean energy that benefits regular folks’ pocketbooks, particularly in the upper Midwest — aka the “rust belt.” In addition to the rust belt’s history in manufacturing, it also happens to have many of the nation’s Fortune 500 companies, top research institutions, and metropolitan areas with diversified economies. And, it’s where the last election was decided.
A Different Approach
I actually think we need to re-frame this issue from “protecting the environment” to be much broader, such as “sustainable economic transformation.” I’m all for ensuring we don’t kill off the lesser prairie chicken, but what gets me up in the morning is figuring out how we can reinvent our economy so that we can grow robustly even as we transition away from carbon-intensive sectors.
Ben Hernandez, CEO of NuMat Technologies, makes this point well in his piece in Forbes — the rust belt can thrive with smart public policy and the embrace of cutting edge technologies. If we make smart investments and ensure the availability of patient capital, we can leverage the economic ingenuity that already exists to create jobs and really grow the regional economy in clean energy and beyond.
After all, putting people to work, and enabling them to earn a real living in clean energy is going to be a much more effective strategy for engaging voters than trying to scare the hell out of them. The good news on this front is that we’re not starting from scratch — more than 700,000 people in the Midwest already work in the clean energy sector, and that number is expected to grow in the coming years.
In order to make sure we continue growing the clean energy economy and chipping away at our climate challenges, here’s what I would suggest specifically:
- Don’t Shoot Ourselves in the Foot. While policy is fragmented by state and split between federal and state authorities, the policies we currently have in place to (in many states) continue investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency that are working well and are ramping up over time. The same can be said for federal efforts like appliance standards and vehicle mileage standards. While these are a patchwork of policies, they are important to keep in place to provide a floor to work from.
- Increase Investment in Innovation and Commercialization. This can both help to create the technologies that will help solve climate change, and to create new businesses and jobs that can inclusively grow the economy. Further, while policy and deployment are important, we’ll need innovation to solve our global climate challenge (deploying today’s technologies won’t be enough).
- Make Tradeoffs to Enact Comprehensive Federal Policy. A revenue neutral carbon tax can appeal to a wide swath of political perspectives. I also think it is important that this policy lever include a benefit to citizens in general, in the form of a ‘carbon dividend.’ While this may not actually be the most effective or efficient policy in the abstract, I firmly believe that once we begin cutting checks to American consumers utilizing the revenues from a carbon tax that few will be interested in ever weakening such a policy. I’d rather have a $40 carbon tax with a dividend than an $80 carbon tax that makes investments in energy R&D, even though the later would be much more effective — specifically because I would never worry about the carbon dividend getting repealed.
- Recite the Serenity Prayer. We don’t need to convert every climate denier out there (they’re small minority of the population, by the way) — we just need strive for inclusive sustainable economic development, and in the process we will engage the Americans who already think climate change may be occurring but who weren’t passionate about taking action. Further, most large renewables projects deployed in the U.S. are in districts represented by legislators who have opposed action on climate change. As the sector continues to grow, this position will become untenable and the need for action on climate change will spread across party lines.
A Good Job is More Convincing Than Good Data
Upton Sinclair famously said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Well, the reverse is also true — once people feel connected to the clean energy industry, it won’t really matter what’s being published in science journals — those people are going to support the clean energy transition. Many of these people are also voters in the rust belt whose views on climate could be categorized as “cautious.”
No matter how much we’d like to, we aren’t very good at cajoling or scaring people into supporting climate policy. We need to create economic alignment so that their lives are tangibly better on a day-to-day basis as a result of the energy and climate policies we put in place. We can re-shape this debate from ‘environmentalists v. big business’ to be ‘sustainable economic transformation v. status quo.’ That is a much fairer fight. If we can align economic interests with climate policy interests, we will have the proverbial wind is blowing at our backs.
While we may feel like we are losing the warm on climate change right now, we haven’t lost it. Indeed, despite America’s off-kilter trajectory currently, I remain optimistic, largely because of the important interplay between people’s views and the growth of the clean energy economy. To prevail, we need to take an inclusive approach to real sustainable economic transformation. This means growing a sustainable economy throughout the country, engaging the climate curious, and structuring our policy solutions to be inclusive.