America 2021: What Next on Climate?
The effort to address climate change stumbled with the failure to pass cap-and-trade. What should happen now? Five experts discuss the future of U.S. climate and energy policy.
Lexi Shultz: I’m going to split the difference a little bit. I don’t think we’ll have a price on carbon by 2021, but the pressures to get there will have really ramped up by then, so that hopefully, soon after that, we might actually have a real comprehensive climate policy. Also, hopefully, some of the issues around the deficit will shift away from slashing the funding needed to create jobs, which is really cutting off our nose to spite our face. There is already a big push for incentives for manufacturing and for the types of innovation that we really will need—on energy efficiency, on renewables, on clean cars—whether we have a price on carbon or not. By 2021, there will be enough pressure that we will see some real investments in those areas.
We’re already seeing the costs of climate change around the world. By 2021, the costs of those impacts in the United States will be quite high. With flooding, extreme storms, and lots of natural disasters, there will be an increased call for dollars to help those towns and areas deal with the aftermath and prevent those effects in the first place.
There are also going to be competing water needs. One of the effects of climate change is going to be reduced water supply, so it will be felt in areas that have been growing in population and will probably continue to grow. I do think some regulations will be in place and will start taking effect, and people will see that the world’s not crashing down because we’re starting to reduce carbon from a few sectors. There are going to be some incentives to create clean technologies, and we will have a robust industry around clean tech, though we will have need for a lot more.
Laskey: There needs to be some narrative connecting these natural disasters that are happening due to climate change. You could argue that the White House failed to tell that story. But I would make the argument that we failed as a movement to create a burning platform on this issue.
Roy: On this point about connecting the dots for people, I saw polling recently that the percentage of people in the United States who are alarmed about climate change is at about 14 percent. That’s comparable to the “issue publics” on both sides of topics like abortion and gun control. But the difference is that people who care deeply about climate change feel isolated—they don’t know that there are tens of millions of Americans who feel the same way they do.
Walsh: Can we weave together a narrative of attribution—rising carbon emissions, climate change, these natural disasters we see? Among scientists that I know, this is one of the most difficult problems that they face. And we’ve seen in the wake of “Climategate” a loss of faith, at least among conservatives, in climate science. Should this movement keep fighting on the science, or is it just going to continue in this circle?
Shultz: Those connections really haven’t been made. And that’s something we still have to keep doing. One of the reasons Climategate was so bad is that so many people had stopped talking about the science that it left a vacuum, and you can’t leave that vacuum again.
Arroyo: We work with a lot of governors, because our center is focused on states’ activities. And if you look at the leading governors who have really stepped up on these issues, it’s been more bipartisan than we’ve seen here in Washington. They’re closer to the impacts. They’re the ones who are having to declare states of emergency with unprecedented frequency. Washington Governor Chris Gregoire talks about climate change and the fact that she’s having floods and fires. Same thing with former Governor Schwarzenegger, a Republican. The fire season is now year-round in California, and its coasts are also vulnerable.
But these leaders couple these concerns with a message of opportunity. Maybe some groups stopped talking about the science because it can leave people feeling overwhelmed and helpless. If you look at these skillful politicians, they talk about the fact that you can address this problem while investing in a new energy economy that provides more homegrown sources of power that are safer and can create jobs.
Aldy: When we’re considering how we communicate on this issue, we should be able to make the case that even in the context of uncertainty, there are prudent things we can do that reduce the risk. People buy insurance against catastrophic events all the time, like homeowners’ insurance and auto insurance. We take those kinds of precautions. And we ought to consider, as a society, what are the appropriate actions to take to reduce these risks associated with climate change? What’s the appropriate premium we should be paying?
Roy: When we ask that question, we have in mind this sort of mythical “public.” But there is no “public”—there are people and each person has different concerns, interests, and beliefs.
It’s interesting to look at how the other side has worked this issue. They’ve created this overlapping series of misrepresentations: “Climate change isn’t happening.” “It is happening, but it isn’t human caused.” “It is human caused but it isn’t going to be a big deal.” “It is going to be a big deal but we can’t afford to do anything about it.” “Well, we can afford it but we’re not going to do it until China does something about it.”
They have these overlapping, mutually contradictory stories, each of which activates a different member of the public out there. We have to do the same thing, but with truth. We should be talking about science, about solutions, about competitiveness with other countries, about the benefits of reducing pollution. I don’t think we should stop talking about anything. The other side has shamed us, and we shouldn’t be ashamed. We have an accurate story to tell.
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