Moving past gridlock towards climate solutions

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President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

The spectacular and destructive rhetoric of this year’s presidential campaign has limited substantive discussion of policy, and has obscured such discussion as did occur. It would be easy to argue that this has been a lost opportunity to debate important issues and work towards solutions. The truth is, however, I am not sure how much of an opportunity there ever was.

Why? Because this campaign, more than others before it, has been characterized by competing and completely irreconcilable versions of the basic facts on issue after issue. In the case of climate change, one candidate claims that the entire phenomenon is a hoax invented by the Chinese to stifle our economic growth (which is interesting, because they used to say that we invented climate change to stifle their economic growth). If the candidates can’t even agree on whether or not there’s a problem, it is difficult to imagine a productive discussion about solutions.

This is bad, because the action we need requires much broader political support than exists now. Only so much can be accomplished through executive action, which out of necessity has been the Obama administration’s primary tool on this issue. Even the most aggressive policies under discussion today wouldn’t be enough to satisfactorily control climate change. We need much more rapid deployment of renewable energy, a better electricity grid, a Manhattan project to figure out how to remove a couple of hundred billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere (and where to put it), and much more attention paid to the threats resulting from climate change in the Arctic and Antarctic. In short, we need to be much more ambitious, but that’s impossible in today’s political environment.

So how can we make progress in addressing this important and urgent challenge?

For one thing, it’s important to remember that the public is much more united about climate change than you might infer from the public “discourse.” Surveys of the US public consistently show that majorities of the public recognize the reality of human-caused climate change, and support action to address it. And these majorities seem to be growing, albeit slowly. Climate change denial continues to be over-represented in public conversations.

Another encouraging development is increasing support for climate action in the business and financial communities. I spoke last week to the Boston chapter of Environmental Entrepreneurs, a national group of business owners and investors who promote policies that are “good for the environment and good for the economy” at state and federal levels. These are serious business people who are committed to protecting the environment. The existence of this group and others like it is encouraging, because, for better or for worse, the business community has more political influence than scientists or tree-huggers.

Speaking of being good for the economy, we now have enough experience with climate policies like carbon taxes and cap and trade systems that it is possible to empirically evaluate not only their effectiveness in controlling greenhouse gas emissions but also their economic impacts. The results are encouraging: to the extent that they can be discerned, the economic impacts of climate policies seem to be positive on balance. This is important, because nowadays the primary argument of the “climate change deniers” is not to actually deny the existence of climate change, but rather to argue that it would be “too expensive” to do anything about it. If the initial studies are correct, this argument will become less tenable as more evidence accumulates.

Finally, there is reason to hope that the idea of climate change denial as a conservative “litmus test” may have reached its apex. It wasn’t always true that conservatives were anti-environment—Nixon, after all created the EPA—and of course it makes sense for conservatives to support conservation. (We all benefit from the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, who set aside 230 million acres for conservation.) Former South Carolina congressman Bob Inglis, who appeared at a recent WHRC event, is dedicating himself to rallying conservatives who support fact-based energy and climate policies. It’s encouraging to see this movement among conservatives.

So, even during the most negative and vicious national campaign any of us can remember, there is reason for optimism. And whatever the outcome next month, WHRC will continue to push the frontiers of scientific understanding, and promote science-based climate policy. It has never been more important, or more urgent.

Thanks as always for your interest and support.