Climate change movement must build bridges not smugly hurl insults
by Allen Best
Amid the bluster of the new president and the stampede toward a mythic past of a supposedly safer, more insular America, it’s been hard to bear down on climate change. Today’s noise drowns out tomorrow’s danger. But even as President Donald Trump builds walls, the climate change movement needs to build bridges.
Climate activists have been built too many walls of their own, self-righteously dismissing laggard thinkers as “deniers” and rejecting their concerns. Creating a world smugly divided into believers vs. deniers serves no useful purpose. The politics of climate change are trickier than just red hats vs. blue shirts, conservatives vs. liberals.
Voters in Washington state, among our most reliably Democratic since the late 1980s, last November were asked to approve a tax on carbon emissions. Nearly all economists say a carbon tax will most effectively accelerate changes in how we produce and consume energy. It assigns a price, or cost, to greenhouse emissions, but does not presume to know the best way to respond. It leaves the market to figure out solutions.
Among the most vocal opponents in Washington state were liberal groups, among them Black Lives Matter, the Labor Council of the AFL-CIO, and Service Industries Union International. They argued the tax would disproportionately hurt lower-income residents. So did Van Jones, the CNN commentator and activist (who was also in the Obama White House). “I have been a climate hawk for 15 years,” Jones said in a pre-election conference call with reporters. “I literally wrote the book. I have never opposed any climate proposal at all. But I am opposing this one because it is that bad. It is just that bad.”
This opposition offered a valuable lesson for those of who think that broad and deep changes must be made in how we produce and consume energy. The argument of these opponents in Washington state differed little from the traditional argument from red-state Republicans about the stinging economic impacts of shifting from fossil fuels. Somehow, the argument for the urgency of climate change must be recalculated to broaden support. More muscle must be enlisted to share the oars. Snarling the name “climate denier” isn’t likely to deliver the most robust cooperation.
Finger-wagging was egregious in the November issue of a ski magazine called Powder. The magazine investigated the campaign contributions of ski area operators through the prism of climate change. Many major ski area operators give money to Republicans, and nearly all the Republicans cited in the story have opposed climate change efforts such as the Clean Power Plan. The story was strewn with the phrase “climate denier.”
For example, Rusty Gregory, the chief executive of California’s Mammoth Mountain, gives money to his local congressman, U.S. Rep Paul Cook, a Republican who has bad-mouthed the Clean Power Plan as “sidestepping Congress and over-regulating the American economy.” He was, of course, a “climate denier.” In Wyoming, the chief executive of Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Jerry Blann, gives money to Republicans while advocating environmental reform within the industry trade organization, the National Association of Ski Areas. This makes him an environmental hypocrite. Vail Resorts, the nation’s largest ski area operator, gave $5,000 to House Speaker Paul Ryan, also a “climate denier.”
If people in ski towns of the West veer liberal, the broader West remains more red than blue. Wyoming hasn’t had a Democrat in Congress since 1978, when a young Dick Cheney replaced a labor Democrat, Tino Roncalio. Even purplish Colorado, where Vail Resorts is based, sends more Republicans (5) to Congress than Democrats (4). Ski area operators say they give money to Republicans because they have a lot of business with the federal government and it’s not all about climate change. In the West, most operate on federal lands.
Campaign contributions alone don’t explain the stalled progress on climate change policy. The top political donor in the 2016 elections was climate-change partisan Tom Steyer, the former hedge-fund manager from San Francisco. He gave $87.6 million to Democrats and liberals, according to OpenSecrets.org. In the 2014 mid-term elections, he gave $75.4 million. Democrats and supporters of climate change policies lost ground in both elections.
Even when Democrats owned both the White House and Congress in 2009, cap-and-trade legislation stalled in the Senate. The coalition that defeated cap-and-trade consisted largely of coal and farm states. Fossil fuels have been a major component of industrialized agriculture, and the electrical cooperatives that serve many rural areas became heavily invested in coal-powered generation.
If a majority of Americans see human fingerprints on the changing climate, only a minority see it with alarm. Even fewer act as if there truly is an apocalyptic clock ticking. Instead, we live our lives day to day, month to month. This is true even of the Aspen Skiing Co., the most vocal of the ski companies about the perils of climate change. The company’s basic business model will be severely damaged by the shift from snow to rain that climate models forecasts for later this century. Yet the company continues to build luxury hotels and cater to customers who travel by gas-guzzling jets. Money matters in Aspen as it does among Republican farmers in Nebraska, liberals in Washington state, and everywhere else.
Former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis, who was described by Atlantic magazine as a spokesperson of sorts for the “ecoright,” is among those pushing for a free market solution stimulated by a carbon tax. This differs from the somewhat less flexible approach of the Clean Power Plan. When I heard Inglis speak before a small group of climate activists in Boulder, Colo., last April, he singled out House Speaker Paul Ryan. “He knows it’s real – to the tip of his toes,” said Inglis, who has a group called RepublicEn, of the threat of climate change.
The idea of a carbon tax got more wind in its sails recently when George P. Shultz, a cabinet secretary in three presidential administrations, and James. A. Baker II, the secretary of state in two presidential administrations, proposed a gradually increasing carbon tax beginning at $40 per ton carbon tax, with revenues to be redistributed to Americans in the form of dividends. Carbon adjustments would be imposed on imports based on their carbon footprints.
Commenters on the website of the Wall Street Journal, where the Shultz-Baker proposal was published, quickly trashed the proposal as unnecessary. After all, there is no problem. Are they deniers? Maybe, but what matters more are those in the middle, including farmers.
Farmers must be persuaded that they can benefit in this swivel to new energy economy. So must blue-collar voters and those in military communities. The Pentagon long ago identified climate change as a key threat to U.S. security. Too few people know this.
Banish the word denier. Build bridges to those in the middle, not hurl insults to those at the far end. Find commonalities under the tent of red, white and blue patriotism. Stress America’s exceptionalism. The United States should lead this global transformation in energy innovation. That will make a great America even greater.