What Do We Have to Share?

Looking past ideology, perhaps conservatives and liberals have more in common than we usually think.

I recently heard two inspired talks about shifting from fossil fuels to clean energy sources, but it was the circumstances of the presentations that really got my attention.

In a plenary at the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change conference, the two speakers must have been the only conservatives in the room.

At a time when large majorities of Americans believe global warming is a serious problem, we should be willing to set our own ideologies aside for a moment, listen to our neighbors and get down to business.

After all, the long-term demands of stabilizing the climate system and adapting to a warming world will not be served by partisan bickering. It’s time to find out what liberal and conservative approaches share and where they diverge, and I will devote several upcoming Climate Report™ podcasts to this issue.

Let’s start with a recent column in the Orange County Register, where conservative Alex Bozmoski proposed shifting from the income tax to a carbon tax. The tax shift idea is nothing new, nor is it an idea that stands on its own.

Mr. Bozmoski describes a marketplace where all of the costs we pay for burning fossil fuels are built into the prices of coal, oil, natural gas and the electricity they generate.

As Mr. Bozmoski puts it, “. . . what we pay at the meter and at the pump doesn’t account for the emergency room visits and lost work days triggered by coal pollution, or the blood and treasure spent protecting overseas supply lines, or the chronic and costly risk that rising temperatures pose for our communities and enterprises from forestry to fishing to farming. We already pay those costs. … Just because these costs are socialized does not mean they magically disappear.”

There is no climate change denial or free market fundamentalism here. Any number of liberal thinkers would say exactly the same things.

The core of this argument is that we should not socialize the costs of any particular energy source—fossil or renewable—while allowing businesses to privatize the profits.

Fair enough. Everyone agrees that the energy market is distorted by a myriad of intricate policies, incentives, subsidies and regulations. Everyone agrees that we pay the costs one way or another. A majority of Americans agrees that those costs will rise as the world warms and weather-related disasters become more frequent.

I suspect the real differences lie in people’s underlying values frames, which, for Americans, have always been in tension. In Our Divided Political Heart, E. J. Dionne Jr. describes American history as “a balance between our love of individual freedom and our devotion to community.”

Researchers at Yale and George Mason Universities find much the same thing, noting that conservatives favor individualistic values whereas liberals lean toward egalitarianism. These differences play out in battles over energy and climate policy, but in truth we all express both values frames in various parts of our lives.

We should accept that this tension is natural in the American experience and forget about winning a culture war once and for all over climate change.

My hunch is that liberals are deeply distrustful of the marketplace because corporate interests are often inclined to sacrifice social welfare for private gain. Government regulation looks like the best way to hold the excesses of free enterprise in check.

Conservatives, on the other hand, deeply distrust regulation as cumbersome, intrusive, and manipulated to favor wealthy interests and politicians. The simplicity and transparency of an undistorted marketplace looks like a more reliable way to promote constructive innovation and social good.

In other words, it is possible that many liberals and conservatives want to achieve the same thing: a thriving decarbonized economy.

How can we get there? How can we correct market distortions in pragmatic ways that will work quickly and decisively enough?

Would internalizing all the costs of fossil fuels give renewables a fair shake, or do renewables need help to overcome fossil energy’s infrastructure head start?

How can we inspire ingenuity while being fair to the least advantaged?

How can we protect against future corruption and distortions?

This sounds like a productive conversation to have right now because the climate system doesn’t care about our values preferences.

As climatologist Richard Somerville put it, “You can’t fool Mother Nature. The laws of atmospheric physics . . . are immune from political tampering.” We emit a certain amount of carbon and Mother Nature takes it from there.

Dependable energy and climate policies must be equally immune to political tampering. If we want to achieve this, we’d better start negotiating solutions that we can all live with.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar via creative commons license.

About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.