Keep your friends close…

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Hey, did anyone here read that recent article on political strategies for action on climate change? You know, the one published in the National Review?

[crickets chirping]

OK, I generally don’t recommend the National Review on environmental policy, but I couldn’t help peeking at the recent article (pdf) by Jim Manzi. Various of the more thoughtful right-of-center blogs had alternatively described it as “brilliant” and “a taste of how a wised-up, heads-out-of-the-sand Right could kick [liberals'] ass on the issue” of global warming. I hadn’t realized that climate change was a game of flag football, but there you go.

From where I sit, it’s hard to see the brilliance of Manzi’s article. He understands that the scientific evidence for manmade global warming is strong, and he further realizes that blatant obstructionism is in the long term a losing proposition.

But his proposed political strategy for addressing the problem is to downplay the likely effects of climate change while telling blue collar workers that environmentalists want to steal their jobs. Simultaneously, he wants to launch an alternative set of lower-cost and inadequate programs to address the problem.

So he’s basically proposing the most obvious political strategy imaginable for obstructionists to take up once denialism fully runs its course. “Global warming can be the first wedge issue of the 21st century,” he gloats.

Nevertheless, I’m not writing about Manzi’s article for the snark value. I’m writing about it because I think the article, almost in spite of itself, offers some food for thought. After all, if you set aside the noxious partisanship, the theme of Manzi’s article is how to sell climate change as a winning issue to a part of the electorate that is presently indifferent or openly hostile:

Global warming is a manageable risk, not an existential crisis, and we should get on with the job of managing it. Conservatives should propose policies that are appropriately optimistic, science-based, and low-cost. This should be an attractive political program: It is an often-caricatured, but very healthy, reality that Americans usually respond well to the conversion of political issues into technical problems. After all, we’re very good at solving the latter.

Substitute “environmentalists” for “conservatives” in this paragraph, and you have something to chew on. The conventional approach in the green community is to hammer on the scientific and moral urgency of the problem in order to whip up enthusiasm for change. What if this is entirely the wrong prescription for reaching the mainstream?

I don’t have a ready answer to this question, but I will say this: after reading the article, I’m pretty optimistic that the wedge politics of climate change will fail. The simple truth is that Manzi’s message, if effective, is just way too easy to co-opt.

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adam

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  1. Deb - September 2, 2007

    Interestingly enough the “steal you job” attitude has recently been used by a local politician here in Western PA. He is known for his local “breakfast meetings” where he invites an entire neighborhood by letter to join him for breakfast to discuss the current issues. He remarks in his letter that he can’t understand why certain people are trying to get rid of coal and natural gas as energy sources when this industry will provide jobs for the next 250 years (his source undisclosed). My first thought was, “Wonderful, we’ll provide jobs while killing the local population with black lung and mercury poisoning. We’ll continue to add to global warming and water pollution. But at least people will be getting paychecks (while they’re alive).”

  2. Donna - September 5, 2007

    Developing alternative energy will create thousands of jobs, create real homeland security and make the world cleaner and Americans healthier. eventually, even right wing knuckle draggers will realize this.

  3. Geoff - September 5, 2007

    If you separate out all the name-calling and hay-throwing on both sides, risk management is precisely the framework that has sold climate change as a serious issue for corporations to address. And the lower the cost of our responses, the more of them we can afford to do. The sooner we embrace the necessity of dealing with CC as an economic issue, not just an environmental one, the closer we’ll be to solutions that will work in the real world.

  4. Pete - September 5, 2007

    My opinion is that Conservatives generally manipulate the population for their own benefit. There are so many ways to influence public opinion with “half-truths.” It seems that accepting global climate management for the benefit of mankind is compromised since there are economic inconveniences involved.

    To me the necessities of climate management and environmental preservation are self evident. There are so many examples of poor results when environmental impact has not been properly considered. Global warming is simply on a larger scale.

    Quality of life is important. Treading lightly so that future generations can enjoy what we have enjoyed is important. Preserving the environment so that ecosystems besides that of mankind flourish is important. I fail to understand the attitude that mankind is more important than everything else. Mankind’s shortsighted nature is the challenge to overcome.

    The conundrum associated with conservative politics and jobs is anti-thetical. While American corporations shift manufacturing and service to other countries, many better paying jobs are lost. The justification for these shifts is reduced cost. Reduced cost is achieved through compensation reduction as well as regulatory compliance reduction. Many of these shifts are therefore more damaging to the environment and Americans than before.

    Government by the people and for the people has been overrun by corporate money. We need to take it back in the worst way. Who needs to argue about things like the Kyoto Protocol? Let’s accept that the problem exists and work on solutions. Remove elected officials who choose not work to improve quality of life when corporate interests request special considerations.

  5. jake3_14 - September 5, 2007

    Adam,

    Please complete your post by elaborating on the statement, “The simple truth is that Manzi’s message, if effective, is just way too easy to co-opt.” I have an idea of where you are going, but it would help me in my conversations with people if you’d cross a few T’s and dot a few i’s.

  6. Chad - September 5, 2007

    Geoff: One problem with thinking about CC from an economic perspective is that it is pretty easy to come to the conclusion that such things as combatting HIV, malaria, and malnutrition provide far more bang for the buck in most cases. Economics reveals that our response to CC should be fairly modest with respect to what many environmentalists really want.

  7. Adam Stein - September 5, 2007

    Hi Jake,
    I’ll give it a shot, although political strategy isn’t my strongest suit.
    An effective wedge issue has to exploit a natural rift in a political coalition. In this case, the hope would be to split blue-collar workers from environmentalists over economic fears.
    The problem I see here is that Manzi’s central message contains nothing overly objectionable that would alienate environmentalists. He believes that climate change is an urgent challenge that must be addressed, with as little damage to the economy as we can manage. No argument here. If this constitutes “winning” the debate for Manzi, then I’m happy to concede defeat and focus on the more pressing matter of what to actually do about climate change.
    Of course, there might be plenty of objectionable stuff in the specific policy proposals Manzi favors, but by the time you’re haggling over policy arcana, it seems the potency of the wedge issue is mostly lost. It goes without saying that different factions are going to lobby hard for their favored policy prescriptions, but this is just standard-issue politics.
    Don’t get me wrong. The big question here is when the U.S. will put a price on carbon, and I have no doubt that opponents of action will try their damndest to turn this into a wedge issue. And they might succeed for a while. But there’s another problem with Manzi’s strategy, which is that climate change legislation will not, in fact, wreck the economy. Longer term, this will further rob the issue of its wedginess.

  8. Anonymous - September 5, 2007

    One things Republicans do well is make people see how they are personally affected by public policy. We need to do that, too. They make people think that if they don’t stop gay marriage, their own marriage is in danger, their own kid may turn gay. If the military isn’t privatized, they will pay more in taxes to keep it public. That if Enron goes under and takes everyone’s retirement with them, then it is the fault of the future retiree for being too greedy or not protecting their assets by diversifying.
    While I don’t advocate lying like a Republican, I do think personalizing sometimes goes over better than moralizing. Of course we are right, but that doesn’t mean we get to call the shots.
    I advocate doing a due diligence with our goals. The stock market goes up under Democrats; the economy expands; worker’s wages rise; the air gets cleaner. These things can be proven empirically, yet common wisdom says the opposite. And despite the death of supply side economics after Reagan’s disastrous experiment, here we went again.
    SO, I think we have to start fighting Republicans on their own terms: economic. When they say we can’t afford to deal with global warming, we respond that we can’t afford not to, and give the financial numbers to back it up. How much has Katrina cost us in lost productivity, loss of tax bases, repairing the infrastructure, repairing the levees. When we let the wetlands be destroyed for economic gain, why weren’t true costs included? When coal is mined, who pays for the clean-up? Where does the cost of proper mine safety get calculated? Why does the cost of a mine disaster get passed to the dead coal-miner’s family, while the profits remain in the pocket of the owner? Isn’t the loss of income from the miner killed through lack of safety precautions one of the true costs of production? Shouldn’t cleaning up carbon emissions be included in the true cost of a car? If it were, do you think the automotive industry might change its mind about CAFE standards?
    It is a distortion of capitalism when the true costs of production are foisted off on other people and other generations. Green energy suddenly becomes very affordable if we look at the true cost of the energy policies we have.

  9. Adam Stein - September 5, 2007

    There’s definitely merit to some of these suggestions, but I’d encourage you to think less in terms of how to tactically beat a partisan opponent, and more about how to simply engage people on this issue. The main problem is not, however much it might sometimes seem so, an organized and nefarious opposition. Rather, the main problem is simply a general lack of knowledge and a natural apathy towards problems that are large, abstract, and planted firmly in the future.

  10. Anonymous - September 6, 2007

    I would like to address something stated by Pete and “Anonymous” that I find disturbing: the fact that they appear to believe that only “Republicans” use half-truths in politics. I hope the can someday come to realize all the half-truths that the Democrats use as well. They are just as plentiful.
    Anonymous even repeats one of them: “The stock market goes up under Democrats; the economy expands… These things can be proven empirically”.
    This is a common Democratic mantra which is FALSE. While it is true that average GDP growth rates have been higher under Democratic administrations in the last century, THIS RESULT IS NOT STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT. Not even close. It is akin to flipping a coin fifteen times, coming up heads six, and concluding the coin is loaded somehow. This is clearly a classic example of a half-truth, and should not be stated by anyone who complains about other peoples’ use of half-truths.

  11. Lora Bruncke - September 6, 2007

    Anonymous, thank you for explaining your position so well!
    I have been critical of capitalism for some time. I like your distortion explanation!
    Your idea of due diligence is necessary for survival. When gouging is ok under cover of what the market will bear, we get a 400+ : 1 ratio between rich and poor. When big business pays little for its wealth, they foster discontent. When a small part of the world benefits from technology and the rest suffer from the race for it, we have a moral obligation to re-evaluate our priorities.
    If the rest of the world has heard what I have heard, that we on this continent are using up all the resources, we may soon be the target of hate from more than just the Muslims living in oil rich countries.
    We, the people, who have been blessed to have peace and wealth, regardless of political or religious beliefs, must band together or our lovely little planet will lose us as a species!
    As for educating the masses, movies like the Inconvenient Truth will bring those large, abstract ideas right into their present day living rooms!

  12. MNWalleye - September 10, 2007

    Comment deleted.
    Hi, MNWalleye. We definitely appreciate that you’re a frequent and engaged commenter on this blog. But we do ask that comments remain at least somewhat on topic. Neither this post nor any of the other comments have anything to do with Al Gore’s carbon footprint.