Building climate bridges, not walls

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 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. Built 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.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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9 Responses to Building climate bridges, not walls

  1. rgath says:

    “Laggard thinkers” my ***.
    Climate change activism if focused on controlling and expropriating Americans.
    The Earth’s population increases by some 80 million every year, courtesy of the third world.
    This is NEVER part of the discussion. The Earth’s population has doubled in the last half century. Places like Pakistan get to double their population every generation or so, and not a peep out of the Leftist control freaks who are seeking a carbon tax to extend their control over every aspect of OUR lives.
    Want to build bridges? Have a discussion about the REAL problem: too many people.

  2. Kathryn Ebeling says:

    No. You Media have to educate these people. Scientific thinkers Do Not have to accept the idiots for some kind of balance. Get the truth out. Tell them to turn off Limbaugh and read some science. I Will Not Go Along with the idiots for some kind of peace. NO NO NO this is America not Idiocracy. Yet

  3. Michael Beckley says:

    Damn good article AB and, as always, you’re spot on. How to expand the tent? There’s the question. I know, for sure, IF we don’t fix what we’re doing, IF we don’t change the direction we’re headed, IF we don’t convince individuals, corporations, governments and nations that change must occur——-where we’re going to go skiing will be the least of our problems.

  4. Erik Martin says:

    Hi Allen,
    Thanks for the stimulating article and perspective. I enjoyed reading the book “Krakatoa” which demonstrates how fragile our planet is and vulnerable to sudden changes in atmospheric conditions. Global temperatures dropped significantly after the Krakatoa volcanic eruption causing nuclear winter due to volcanic ash and droplets of sulfuric acid obscuring the Sun and increasing the reflection of solar radiation following the 1883 eruption. Average Northern Hemisphere summer temperatures fell by 2.2 °F causing many crops to fail. This was particularly noticed in Europe. Weather patterns continued to be chaotic for many years, with temperatures remained below average for the next five years. I also listened to a lecture by a scientist from NOAA talking about the variability of radiation and heat output from the sun hitting the earth due to changing conditions and sun spots and the changing effect of the Earth’s surface reflecting variable amounts of infrared radiation back into the air that can be trapped and absorbed by gases in the atmosphere that produces the greenhouse effect. It is certainly a complex issue. I enjoy your posts. I miss those days on the mountain together. Erik

    • Erik,

      what you’re describing with your volcano example is one of the ‘forcings’ that define climate.
      Climate reacts to different forcings, some of which induce cooling, some warming, some oscillate, but the point is that at this point in the scientific inquiry we know which ones play a role, to what degree, and in what direction, and we can show that CO2 happens to play by far the biggest role.
      So while it’s complex we clearly know what is driving today’s runaway global warming at a pace not seen before, it’s CO2.
      We had geologist Phil Nelson give a talk on a related issue in November, and I also recommend Jeffrey Bennett’s talk at CU Boulder, both are on the Youtube site of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCr81EUb2qVJVfmmlJMxEHVw

  5. Louis Meyer says:

    Stimulating words Allen! Yes we need leadership from all walks of life, sides of the aisle, business, non profits, the scientific community et al.. Too much of our dialogue is rooted in partisanship on all issues and not just climate. Where have all the Statesmen and Stateswomen gone! But what am I doing about climate chang? At the moment nothing others than try and get the word out on the impact of water in the Colorado Basin. I am trying to be an organic farmer that uses less fossil fuel. But that is not enough. Instead of words on paper or rants on social media we all really need to get engaged in our communities, region, state and yes even politics. We need to engage in a thoughtful non partisan way. We need to embrace science. I admire George Shultz and James Baker. If there is a good outcome of this past election it will be a wake up call to all of us to reform the stranglehold of the two party system and show leadership and take on the role of statesmen and women.

  6. paul says:

    A Political Scientology for trickle up economics for government and corporations. Someone has to pay for the massive debts created by the top 10%.
    Believers vs. deniers of the new green environgelic religion of fear and loathing , but Ski areas want your business. Gore and Goldman Sacs didn’t create the Chicago carbon trading platform to save the world, but to make tons of money. The Climate has always been changing. CO2 makes up .0004 part of the atmosphere. So little is actually understood that nothing very meaningful can be proven or disproven. Best is playing the pied piper for personal gain. This is such GLOP.

  7. Ruth Brown says:

    Excellent idea to build bridges instead of walls. Throughout the Bush administration and the Clinton administration, climate change has never been a partisan issue. The private interest of the fossil fuel industry has been successful in labeling any additional costs for doing business on public lands as a “tax”. They have enjoyed the benefits of government subsidies for decades. They can be held accountable for the externalities of pollutants by placing a price on the carbon. It is a free market solution that everyone should agree on. When the price on carbon is held in the form of a fee, which is then returned to the American taxpayer, studies have proven that it will stimulate the economy, create jobs, strengthen national defense, improve health, all while addressing climate change. What’s not to like about that!

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