Trying To Fight Climate Change Without Admitting We Are To Blame

We’re all familiar with climate deniers — the politicians who proudly declare that 97 percent of climate scientists are wrong, and human carbon emissions aren’t driving up global temperatures to a potentially catastrophic degree. Opposing them are what Grist’s David Roberts termed “climate hawks” — people who think climate change is real, it’s extremely dangerous, and civilization’s use of fossil fuels is behind most of it.

But in between, a strange twilight figure has risen for whom there is no term, but with whom climate activists will have to grapple if America is to do its part in keeping the world under 2°C of warming.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R) probably represented this odd creature best back in August: “[Climate change is] a concern in terms of both its impact and the volatility it’s having on our weather patterns,” he said. But when reporters dug into whether humans are causing it, Snyder dodged: “I don’t get into how we got there because that tends to go off into a discussion that I don’t think has real value.”

“Is that relevant or not?” Snyder continued. “No. We have an issue. We need to address it.”

Similar sentiments have been expressed by other politicians. “I’m not qualified to answer that question,” Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval (R) told Real Clear Politics in June when asked if humans are the main drivers of global warming. “Let me tell you what we’ve done, without getting to whether it’s human-caused or whatever that may be.”

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R).

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R).

CREDIT: AP Photo / Paul Sancya

And the thing is, both governors have been doing things. Snyder has been a mixed bag, but in 2013 he kicked off a data gathering campaign that concluded Michigan’s renewable energy mandate could be massively increased. The state’s Republicans are working out how far to take that idea, and Snyder has acknowledged that coal use in Michigan will need to go down “very significantly.

In Nevada, Sandoval signed a bill to scrap 800 megawatts of coal-fired electricity generation, and ramp up 350 megawatts of renewable energy development. He’s also stated that Nevada will be ready to meet the new federal regulations to cut carbon emissions from power plants.

The more popular dodge in American politics usually runs in the other direction: acknowledge humanity’s role in exacerbating global warming, then hem and haw about whether anything needs to be done from a cost-benefit perspective. But Snyder and Sandoval have essentially chosen the mirror-opposite mix: ignore the cause, then move on to the policy — albeit modestly — anyway.

With the world’s chances of keeping global warming under 2°C looking none too good, and with the U.S. still the primary failed leader in the international community, climate hawks need all the openings they can get.

As the partisan reshuffling of the country’s voters collides with the public’s overall support for climate action and clean energy, the number of Snyders and Sandovals will probably only grow in the near future. As such, they provide a quixotic but very real opening — assuming climate hawks can overlook the refusal to say whom science blames for causing climate change.

Looking For An ‘Out’ From Climate Change

“You won’t convince a whole group of conservative right-leaning and right-wing people [on climate change],” admitted Larry Ward, the executive director of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum (MCEF). “It becomes your scientists versus our scientists.”

But Ward thinks there are other ways to gain support for green energy without hanging the argument on climate change, and he and his fellow conservatives in the MCEF are trying to demonstrate that in Michigan. The MCEF formed in the last months of 2013, to give a voice to conservative support for renewable energy. Their polling found that 53 percent of Michigan voters “strongly” supported requiring the state’s utilities to move off coal and onto renewable sources of energy, while 25 percent “somewhat” supported it. When asked to design their own energy mix, Michiganders wanted 57 percent of their electricity to come from renewables. And the results cut across partisan and ideological lines: two-to-one, Republicans said they would favor a candidate who supported renewables and energy efficiency over coal.

The two big reasons Michiganders cited were health and pollution concerns. Among the country’s 329 oldest, dirtiest, and least economical coal units, Michigan boasts more than any other state, raining lead, mercury, zync, arsenic, cadmium, and other pollutants down onto the state.

Thanks to the mercury, the state’s Department of Natural Resources issues an annual fish advisory: “If you’re a woman or a child in the state of Michigan, you should consume no more than two fish per month that are caught in the state or in the Great Lakes region,” said Nic Clark, the Michigan Director of Clean Water Action. He also pointed to Michigan’s Torch Lake, which is nowhere near the coal plants, but nonetheless sees enough mercury pollution to warrant Torch its own fish report.

“Our farmers that tend to lean Republican are big supporters of preserving the land because that’s how they make their living,” added Greg Moore, the legislative director for Michigan state Senator Mike Nofs, who chairs that body’s Energy and Technology Committee. “Those who hunt and fish, it’s important to have clean air and clean water so those things that you hunt and fish for are there.”

Coal’s pollutants also have well-documented links to all sorts of brain development problems, especially in children. The sulfur dioxides and nitrous oxides produced when coal or gasoline is burned create smog, aggravate asthma, and contribute to heart and lung disease. A 2010 assessment ranked coal’s health impacts in Michigan as the fifth-highest out of all fifty states: 678 deaths, 487 hospital admissions, and 1,097 heart attacks in 2010 alone. Another report found similar numbers. And in Michigan and around the country, these impacts fall disproportionately on the poor and minorities.

“People have a sense that coal is old technology or dirty technology,” Ward said. “A lot of the mothers brought up the asthma effects and the particulates and the fact that it’s a pollutant — that if we can get away from that pollutant we probably should.”

The health and environmental conservation concerns provide two big reasons — reasons with demonstrable bipartisan appeal — to get off coal and oil without climate change even needing a mention. In short, they give politicians an out.

In The End, It’s Personal

But why do politicians need the out at all?

Kate Gordon is the vice president of Next Generation, and the executive director of a sweeping new assessment of climate change’s potential impact on the U.S. economy. That work put her in contact with business people, industry leaders and other stakeholders. And she noticed an interesting pattern in those conversations: People don’t like to blame themselves for climate change. “Because you start with that — human-caused climate change — then the conversation becomes about how we should all feel guilty about what we did in the past,” Gordon said. “And for people in agriculture and other energy-intensive industries, that’s basically saying everything you’ve built your life on, you were contributing to the problem.”

Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval (R).

Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval (R).

CREDIT: AP Photo / Cathleen Allison

“Do you want to come into a conversation sort of telling people that their industry is the bad guy from the very beginning?”

We tend to think of the positions taken in climate debates as matters of rational (if amoral) self-interest; i.e. the Koch brothers profit from fossil fuels, so of course they don’t want policy changes that cut fossil fuels use. But humans are not rational creatures. There’s a lot of pride and self-worth and raw emotions bound up in our jobs, especially when we own the business in question. Gordon’s experience suggests a lot of the opposition to acknowledging human-caused climate change comes from that place — people resisting the sense that they’re being devalued.

“Why is it that when you say, ‘do you believe in man-made climate change?’ sometimes you’ll get some numbers, then you’ll say, ‘do you believe climate change is an issue for the country?’ you’ll get different numbers?” Gordon asked. “Anecdotally, I think part of it is this blame thing.”

And because this sensitivity about who’s to blame for climate change will be especially acute amongst major business leaders and industry players, it’s not surprising politicians would try to dance around it. Mounting political science evidence also shows that politicians respond first and foremost to the wealthy and business interests, completely ignoring the common voter when their desires run counter to those of the powerful.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

Climate change is the ultimate “free rider” problem: any one individual has a natural incentive to not sacrifice and keep emitting carbon, because they assume everyone else will. And then no one emits any less carbon. So a response to climate change must be coordinated systemically, through things like a national carbon tax, a national cap-and-trade system, or the more limited regulations to cut emissions from power plants that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just laid down.

It’s not obvious how a national consensus in favor of that kind of top-down policy could be built without tackling the question of humanity’s contributions to climate change head on. And it’s even less obvious that the kind of patchwork approach to pushing renewables — use the threat of climate change on politicians here, use the better health impacts and lower pollution of renewables on politicians there — will actually cut carbon emissions as deeply as they need to be cut.

And on balance, Americans agree human beings are responsible for the bulk of global warming over the last century. Majorities also approve of renewable energy, regulations to cut carbon emissions, and other policy efforts to tackle climate change.

But in a government like ours, where compromise is almost always necessary to pass anything at the state or national level, the split between Republicans and Democrats is where the rubber meets the road. Nationally, the parties have become increasingly polarized over the last few decades, as the country’s demographics have reshuffled.

This process is also playing out on a smaller-scale, state-by-state level: “We’ve become more like other states than maybe in the past,” said Matt Grossman, a political scientist at Michigan State. “Our Republicans look more like Republicans from other areas and Democrats do, as well. Even though historically there were differences because there was a conservative Democratic constituency and then there was also a liberal Republican constituency up around the Trevor City area.”

Michigan isn’t the only state beset by these forces, either. Like Nevada and a small swath of other states — Colorado, Florida, Virginia, Ohio — Michigan is something of a “purple state.” The same 2010 Republican wave that put Snyder in office also put the state legislature solidly in GOP hands. Yet Michigan voters went for Barack Obama by 9.5 percentage points in 2012.

Nevada is even more mixed, going for Obama by 6.6 percentage points in 2012, with a national delegation and a state legislature modestly tilted towards the Democrats.

In this weird mix, the specific question of whether human beings are causing climate change now arguably divides Democrats and Republicans more than any question save whether you approve of President Obama’s performance. Because of the partisan cross-currents they’re stuck in, and because they’ll probably be important in any national effort to push green energy policies forward, those states are likely to be places where the health-and-conservation “out” would be most useful.

“If you can convince someone that [climate change] actually exists, then what do you want?” Ward asked. “You want them to start using cleaner forms of energy.”

“Well, can’t we just start using cleaner forms of energy?”

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