What do you get when you cross a liberal with a libertarian? A price on carbon.
I had one of my favorite meetings ever last month. It wasn’t a chance encounter with a celebrity or super hero. Nope, way cooler. I was packed in close quarters with a gaggle of conservatives and libertarians. #woah
Albeit they were a special bunch: They all agreed climate change is real, here now and human caused. And that there is a solution. That solution, a steady and rising fee on pollution, is one that all economists embrace but which many maintain is politically D.O.A.
Time will tell. In the meanwhile President Obama and his team have made real progress in advancing the first ever regulations on coal-plant pollution, responsible for so many premature deaths, respiratory illnesses and asthma.
Yet, the power plant rules only cover one sector of the economy – electricity. We need to reign in emissions from transportation, industry, agriculture and the building sector too. A rising price on carbon pollution applies to the whole economy, and can reduce emissions at lowest cost.
Whether we finally grapple with climate in this country primarily via a market solution or government regulations remains to be seen. But at a moment when every GOP nominee wannabe denies climate science, just being in a room with conservatives willing to get real was epic.
In 25 years, maybe sooner, the main litmus test of political leadership will be what you did on climate. Or as Jim Kim of the World Bank says: “What did you do when you knew?”
A January Stanford/RFF poll showed four-fifths of Americans believe in human-caused climate change. That’s up 10 points from the same poll in 2011. But more striking was that two-thirds of voters said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who campaigns on fighting climate change, including half of all Republicans.
Let that sit for a moment: Half of all registered Republicans would be more likely to vote for a candidate who campaigns on climate action.
Yet every single one of the GOP presidential contenders disavows climate change. Indeed one long-serving senator went so far as to hurl a snowball on the senate floor to highlight the perspective of the party. He chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
So what gives?
How come this stated belief and likeliness to vote for climate candidates isn’t mirrored in Congress? You can argue that the role of the individual voter has been subsumed by special interests, but this is only a partial explanation. Another component has to do with the human brain.
We all know a cool acknowledgement of fact is not the same as a passionate reaction. A deeply engaged climate constituency brought half a million people into the streets of New York City last September. Similarly, a morally outraged Tea Party makes and breaks political dreams every primary season.
A 2013 study in the journal Psychological Science found that morally fired-up Republicans could help provide the crucial backstop of public opinion for climate action.
The researchers noted that the media, when talking about climate change, typically deploy moral frames that resonate with liberals but not conservatives. Messages tend to focus on “protecting the planet” and saving charismatic megafauna like cuddly bears. Meanwhile, moral values that move conservatives, such as purity and sanctity, are not spoken for.
What if the same stories were reframed to invoke conservative values? Would it change the level of engagement and concern in that audience?
“The new storyline emphasized the need to protect natural habitats from “desecration” so that our children can experience the “uncontaminated purity and value of nature.”
Lo and behold, the level of engagement shot up: Conservatives presented with the purity message reported much greater support for pro-climate legislation than the other two groups —indeed, they were as supportive as a group of liberals surveyed.
Such efforts to understand and reflect others’ moral perspectives is a good thing. It’s no surprise that little gets done in Washington when we are constantly tearing each other down.
While climate science has become divisive, social science holds some keys. It points the way to fostering the sincerity and respect needed to advance the kind of bipartisan solutions climate change demands. And it’s a twofer: we get to ensure our future prosperity and freedom in the process.